“Much more work needs to be done” to understand the impact of the coronavirus on black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) communities, a minister has admitted.
Speaking at the daily COVID-19 briefing, Health Secretary Matt Hancock said he had been “really struck” by the “clear difference” in the proportion of people dying with coronavirus who are from ethnic minority backgrounds.
“I totally understand the concerns that people have and I understand the anger that people feel about racial injustice more broadly,” he said, declaring: “Black lives matter.”
The health secretary added: “I share it [the anger] and we want to tackle it. I fully acknowledge that and it is very very important that we address that.”
Mr Hancock was speaking after the release of a report from Public Health England which said that BAME individuals are up to twice as likely to die with the virus than those from a white British background.
The report showed that, after accounting for the effect of sex, age, deprivation and region, people of Bangladeshi ethnicity were found to have around twice the risk of death.
Chinese, Indian, Pakistani, other Asian, Caribbean and other black ethnicities had between a 10% and 50% greater risk of dying.
The highest diagnosis rate per 100,000 population was in black ethnic groups (486 in females and 649 in males) and the lowest in white ethnic groups (220 in females and 224 in males).
The health secretary said “there’s much more work that needs to be done and this report shows that”.
Mr Hancock said equalities minister Kemi Badenoch has been asked to carry out further work on the issue in response to the PHE report.
He added that the government would be looking at “what is driving these disparities and how the different risk factors interact” with ethnicity – such as age, gender and occupation – and what more could be done.
Mr Hancock said the link between ethnicity and the occupations that people do “is an important part of this conundrum”, adding that more work was needed to find out what factors there were “over and above” the impact of being in frontline jobs and living in urban areas.
Ministers have been criticised for failing to offer specific recommendations for BAME communities to help protect themselves.
Critics have also said that the PHE report restated what is already widely known about the effect of COVID-19 on those from ethnic minorities.
Labour’s shadow women and equalities secretary Marsha de Cordova said: “This review confirms what we already knew – that racial and health inequalities amplify the risks of COVID-19.”
She added: “But when it comes to the question of how we reduce these disparities, it is notably silent. It presents no recommendations. Having the information is a start – but now is the time for action.”
Asked what he would say to people from BAME communities worried about the risk from coronavirus, Mr Hancock said: “The number one thing I’d say is that for anybody in a higher risk group, the most important thing to do is stringently to follow the social distancing guidelines, including the work on social distancing at work that has been published.
“For all of the different high risk categories that the data demonstrates, it’s really important that people follow those social distancing guidelines very stringently.
“We’ve been very clear about this from the start about those who either have a medical condition and as the PHE report says, age is the number one risk factor. Around 90% of deaths are of the over 65s.
“The direct answer to the question is the same as to everybody, but with more emphasis.
“Social distancing is the best way to keep yourself safe and keep others safe, alongside the hygiene and washing your hands and making sure that if you have symptoms, get a test.”
The health secretary said he understood the “yearning” for specific measures, saying “we will put action in place as soon as we can”.
“We won’t wait for a report – I’ve got to talk to Kemi about a timeline for it… but I totally understand the urgency, the importance and the sensitivity of getting this right,” Mr Hancock said.
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