Labour demands Covid-19 health inequalities strategy

Elliot Chappell

Shadow Health and Social Care Secretary Jonathan Ashworth has called on the government to implement a health inequalities strategy to “protect deprived and BAME communities” in the coronavirus pandemic.

The intervention by Labour’s health spokesperson followed a report issued by the Office for National Statistics today, which showed that some ethnic minority groups are at “significantly higher” risk of dying from Covid-19.

He also made reference to data published last week, which revealed that more deprived areas have experienced higher Covid-19 mortality rates – in some cases, double that of less deprived places. He has put forward a three-point plan:

  1. In addition to regular testing of healthcare workers and care home residents, community testing and contact tracing should be rolled out in the most deprived areas and in areas with a higher proportion of BAME residents as a priority.
  2. As the NHS resumes ‘normal’ activity, resources should be allocated to ensure inequalities in non-Covid health outcomes do not worsen as a consequence of the pressures on an already stretched health service.
  3. Set up a Covid-19 health inequalities commission to ensure that lockdown does not worsen existing health inequalities, with a view to reporting on trends in healthy living years and life expectancy as a result of the virus.

Ashworth said: “Coronavirus thrives on inequality. And inequality in health is the worst inequality of all leading to people dying sooner because of poverty. While this virus is a deadly risk for everyone, we can’t ignore its disproportionate impact in poorer and BAME communities.

“Testing, tracing and isolation is crucial infrastructure that’s needed to take on Covid-19. But testing is falling and tracing must draw upon the expertise in local public health and primary care services to full tackle the deep rooted equalities Covid-19 exploits.

“Today ministers must act. As well as increasing testing further to all health care workers, community testing and tracing should be rolled out in areas of deprivation, where the health impact is greatest, as a priority. But we also need a plan to tackle the growing burden of unmet clinical need as a consequence of the extra pressures Covid-19 has placed upon the health system.”

Ashworth highlighted that cancer, heart attacks, strokes and respiratory conditions all already have higher death rates in poorer areas. Deprived communities also suffer from higher rates of mental health problems and deaths from suicide.

He added: “It is crucial ministers outline a plan for how resources will be allocated according to need to mitigate these worsening non-Covid health outcomes amongst poorer communities.

“After ten years of austerity life expectancy has stalled and even gone backwards for the poorest 20% of women. Without bold and urgent action, Covid-19 will widen health inequalities. It’s a ticking time bomb – ministers must act now.”

The ONS data published this morning shows that black men are 4.2 times more likely to die from the virus than their white counterparts, while black women are 4.3 times more likely to die than white women.

With health factors and deprivation taken into account, black people are still 1.9 times more likely to die than those in the white ethnic group. Those of Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi ethnicity are also at increased risk.

The government announced that it would be conducting a review into the disproportionate impact of the virus on BAME communities last month. Labour launched its own inquiry shortly afterwards.

The ONS has also released an overall figure for the number of coronavirus deaths in England and Wales up to May 2nd that, when combined with the official Covid-19 deaths data from Scotland and Northern Ireland, gave a UK total of 32,313.

This differs to the daily number published by Public Health England, which today reported 30,076 deaths. The total who have tested positive in the country is now 201,101 – but with low levels of testing the figure is thought to be much higher.

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