We need a funded coronavirus inequalities plan – Ashworth’s Covid-19 update

Jon Ashworth

As the brutal racist and sickening killing of George Floyd reverberates around the world, we stand in solidarity in condemnation – and we demand that systemic inequalities are confronted. Black lives matter. But that must be more than a slogan politicians tweet when convenient. We need bold action.

Labour’s health policy has always been about so much more than ending NHS austerity and privatisation to improve care. Health and wellbeing is about socialism, which means determination in tackling the deprivation, poor housing, insecure work, systemic racism and inequality that creates the remorseless condition for ill health and diminished life chances.

Michael Marmot – a world authority on the impact of austerity on illness, of whom the Tory equalities minister was shamefully unaware – has shown powerfully how inequality and poverty mean the poorest become ill quicker and die sooner in life. The Lancet suggests a 1% fall in employment is usually followed by a 2% increase in chronic illness. There is a social gradient in health where the disadvantaged face inequalities in accessing healthcare and inequalities in health outcomes. No socialist should settle for that.

This crisis has now seen 56,308 excess deaths since the beginning of March. Every death a tragedy and we are trending towards one of the very highest death rates in the world. I can’t understand how Boris Johnson can boast of how proud he is of the UK record as he did in the Commons on Wednesday.

Covid thrives on inequalities impacting the poorest disproportionately. Death rates are twice as high in the most deprived communities. People from BAME communities are three more likely to die from Covid-19 and more likely to be admitted to intensive care. Disproportionate numbers of BAME NHS and care staff have died.

The government’s 89-page report into Covid’s impact on BAME communities published this week – in response to outstanding campaigning from Labour colleagues like Marsha de Cordova – confirmed what we already knew. BAME people are more at risk from this horrific disease.

But the report utterly fails to offer any meaningful action. This is a glaring abdication of responsibility, adding insult to injury in a week when thousands have taken to the streets to demand justice for BAME communities.

There is zero guidance nor a plan from ministers to address the impact of Covid in BAME communities. Matt Hancock meekly advises that people should continue to wash hands and observe social distancing rules – a typically unsatisfactory response, failing to recognise the need for a thorough Covid inequalities strategy as I’ve been calling for weeks.

Where is the plan to help those who will be penalised financially if they are asked to isolate as part of the Test and Trace regime? Nobody should be forced to put at risk their health because of lack of wealth.

Why aren’t ministers rolling out regular testing of healthcare workers and care home residents? Where is the plan for community testing and contact tracing in areas with higher mortality risk particularly the most deprived areas and in areas with a higher proportion of BAME residents?

And where is the plan for other vulnerable groups who are at high risk from this virus? This week, the Care Quality Commission reported a 134% increase in deaths of people with learning disabilities from Covid. A shocking loss of life, which makes it more important that the government adopts Labour’s calls for testing to be expanded to those under 65 in receipt of adult social care.

To protect deprived and BAME communities and tackle the hidden health effects of the pandemic, we need a funded Covid inequalities plan. Without such an intervention, the coronavirus pandemic will widen health inequalities – and the poorest and BAME communities will suffer most. This week of all weeks, we needed bold meaningful action.

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