Doctors in distress

Racism claims continue to haunt the NHS

Most of us want to believe that racism in our society and its various institutions will one day be a thing of the past. It would be naïve to think that every person with racist attitudes will eventually change their views: for many, the prejudice and xenophobia is too deeply ingrained. But as the old give way to the young, we dream that ultimately it will be different. For everyone. Whatever the colour of their skin, whatever their ethnic background. Those who suffer first-hand the hurt and humiliation of racist abuse, and those who observe, shame-faced, from a distance, and who can only imagine the agony these degrading attacks bring. We see small signs of improvement and say and do what we can, whenever we can, to speed the change, bit by tentative bit.

Then something like a leaked NHS report detailing the “appalling and systemic” racism suffered by some GPs from both patients and colleagues turns up, and dreams of equality are shattered again. The Health Education England report for London says racism and discrimination are widespread within primary care across the capital, and in other parts of the country a similar picture emerges. In the London survey, one in three primary care workers, including GPs, pharmacists, dentists and optometrists, said they had experienced racial discrimination or harassment from patients in the last twelve months, and one in five from colleagues.

Details of the disturbing report were revealed in The Independent. And after speaking to health care workers in other parts of the country, the newspaper also told of doctors being called P***, of staff leaving because of the bigotry they suffer, and of patients asking to see a “white” or “English” GP. Professor Simon Gregory, deputy medical director for Health Education England, said that “There is considerable evidence that the UK is systemically racist, and that the NHS is a systemically racist workplace.”

Senior GPs warn of the knock-on effect for patients, as experienced doctors leave practices to escape the abuse. Dr Kamal Sidhu, chair for the British Association of Physicians of Indian Origin, added that the issue of racism within general practice has a “real, harmful impact on patient safety”. The report appears to back up accusations made earlier in the year of “shocking and systemic” racism within the NHS. Speaking to academics at Sheffield University, hundreds of black healthcare workers said they were given poor PPE during the pandemic and were the first to be pushed into the Covid frontline.

University researchers found that 71% of health staff who died in the first month of lockdown were ethnic minorities. Professor Anandi Ramamurthy who led the academic team commented then, “Racism in the NHS is not new, but the Covid-19 pandemic has exposed its fatal impact. This cannot be tolerated, and the pandemic has to mark a turning point in the NHS to eradicate racism in its midst.” The evidence appears to indicate that even a “turning point” remains some distance away.

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