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New government guidelines urging those who can’t work from home to return to work will disproportionately impact Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) people who are already at greater risk of dying from coronavirus, campaigners are warning.
Boris Johnson, in his speech on Sunday night, actively encouraged those who cannot work from home to return to their jobs this week, while avoiding public transport where they can.
However, campaigners say the new measures will hit BAME communities hardest as they are less likely to be in jobs where they can work from home and will be forced to use public transport if they are pressured to return to work.
People from minority ethnic groups are also more likely to be in occupations where they are at higher risk of being exposed to Covid-19 – jobs such as care workers, security guards, bus drivers and taxi drivers.
Ethnic minority groups are at greater risk of dying from coronavirus than the white population according to the latest analysis by the Office for National Statistics.
Anti-racist campaigners say the government’s new policy encouraging people to return to work is particularly dangerous for BAME people and have described the easing of lockdown measures as “premature”, “reckless” and “irresponsible”.
Sabby Dhalu, co-convener for Stand Up To Racism, told HuffPost UK she believes the new guidelines are “herd immunity by stealth” and she fears it will lead to a spike in coronavirus cases which will disproportionately affect people from BAME communities.
“These new guidelines are throwing people from BAME communities under the bus and the government is failing them by putting their lives at risk,” said Dhalu.
“The government’s easing of the lockdown is reverting back to the policy before lockdown which was creeping herd immunity and letting this virus rip through communities.
“People have been put in the very difficult position of choosing to make an income by risking their life going back to work and no one should be put in that position.
“Any further increase in the death and infection rate will carry on disproportionately impacting BAME communities.”
She said she felt the lockdown measures should have been stronger and easing them now is “way too premature”.
“It is herd immunity by stealth by urging sections of the workforce to return to work without enforcing any health and safety measures,” she added.
“Many workers not working from home will be forced to use public transport and this will impact on BAME communities harder.”
Stand Up To Racism is calling for a public inquiry to expose the neglect of BAME communities amid the coronavirus pandemic by looking into issues such as institutional racism, and socio-economic factors such as poverty.
Charity So White, a campaign group led by people of colour tackling institutional racism within the charity sector, has been documenting the various ways BAME communities have been disproportionately impacted throughout the coronavirus crisis – including in health, housing and employment.
Organiser Yasmin Mahmoudi told HuffPost UK the group is alarmed by what the easing of lockdown could mean for BAME workers.
She said the government’s revised “Stay Alert” slogan shunts responsibility onto individuals for protecting themselves against the virus and that more people will now be faced with the stark choice between keeping themselves safe and economic survival.
I feel people from BAME backgrounds are being thrown to the wolves.Yasmin Mahmoudi, Charity So White
“I feel people from BAME backgrounds are being thrown to the wolves,” said Mahmoudi.
“These are people in society who already have the least and face so many disadvantages and now they are facing pressure to return to work.
“A lot of the jobs done by BAME people are public-facing roles with interaction which can’t be done from home.
“It is a class issue as well, as people from BAME communities tend to disproportionately be in lower paid jobs.
“We condemn any plans to ease lockdown while it is still unsafe to do so and whilst protections for workers and the most marginalised members of society remain woefully inadequate.
“It is as if the government is prioritising returning the economy to business as usual at the risk of these BAME workers’ lives.”
Professor Azeem Majeed, head of primary care and public health at Imperial College, London, told HuffPost UK that people who are least able to work at home have the highest Covid-19 death rates among people of working age and that these are the people being encouraged to return to work.
They are roles in which BAME people are over-represented.
He believes a rigorous occupational health risk assessment is essential for everyone before they return to work to reduce their risk of infection.
“I think for any job, we need thorough risk assessments before people return to work,” he said. “This is a duty of care.
“People’s roles need to be assessed and it needs to be made sure they will not be put at risk. Perhaps those at high risk can be put in roles which are not public-facing.”
The first thing we need to do is get the infection rate down in the community and then there needs to be testing and contact tracing.Professor Azeem Majeed, Imperial College, London,
Majeed believes the weeks in lockdown have been “wasted” as he feels a proper contact tracing system should have been put in place long ago.
“The first thing we need to do is get the infection rate down in the community and then there needs to be testing and contact tracing.”
Marsha de Cordova, shadow women and equalities secretary and MP for Battersea, said there was “appallingly little mention of them” or the equalities impact in the government’s Covid-19 plans and recovery strategy.
She told HuffPost UK: “Any gaps in the government’s safety at work guidelines will mean low-paid workers with the poorest employment rights are most at risk.
“This includes many BAME workers who are disproportionately impacted by the Covid-19 crisis.
“We have already seen how Covid-19 has exposed and amplified social and economic inequalities in our society.
“The government must ensure that employers work with trade unions to maintain safe workplaces that are adequately risk assessed so that all communities are protected.”
More than 70 BAME British figures have united to call for an independent public inquiry into the disproportionate deaths from Covid-19 among Britons from minority backgrounds.
Signatories include industry experts and people in public life such as Phil Wang, Kwame Kwei-Armah, Saloum N’jie, Bonnie Greer, Farooq Chaudhry, Matt Henry, Shaun Escoffery and Jermaine Jackman.
They have written to the prime minister calling for more transparency and for an inquiry to be broadened to include a focus on the levels of exposure BAME staff are facing and whether employers are fulfilling their duty of care.
The Independent Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB) is preparing to mount a legal challenge on behalf of its members and says it is crucial that workers such as couriers, cleaners and delivery drivers are protected from the virus.
Jason Moyer-Lee, IWGB general secretary, said to HuffPost UK on the issue of BAME workers: “The prime minister has acknowledged the danger of taking public transport and going into work, but has nevertheless encouraged those who have no alternative to do so.
“The impact of this will not be spread evenly through society – it will disproportionately hit low-paid and BAME workers.
“That’s why the IWGB has been campaigning and taken urgent legal action against the government to protect incomes and health and safety as much as possible.”
Public Health England told HuffPost UK it is currently working on a rapid research review into factors impacting health outcomes for Covid-19. This work includes reviewing disparities in health outcomes of coronavirus between different ethnic groups.
A Public Health England spokesperson said: “The data on Covid-19′s impacts on different communities is rapidly evolving.
“Actions to address these inequalities do not rest with one agency but require collaborative actions at multiple levels of society.
“PHE’s role of providing guidance and data to inform and support local action is an important part of the response and exactly why we are undertaking a research review at this time.”