POLITICS
01/05/2020 07:00 BST

Government Has BAME Testing 'Blindspot' Despite Higher Covid-19 Death Rates

The communities are suffering disproportionately high deaths but ministers unable to say how many BAME people have tested positive.

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The government has been accused of leaving a “blindspot” in its coronavirus response after it was unable to provide data on how many black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) people have tested positive for the disease.

Ministers’ inability to provide live data was branded “shocking” by the Liberal Democrats as a study found that BAME communities were suffering disproportionately high fatalities.

The lack of information risks harming the government’s strategy to protect vulnerable groups and reduce transmission of Covid-19, the party said. 

This leaves a huge blindspot in terms of identifying patterns in the wider transmission of this virus

It came as the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) found that per capita deaths among the Black Caribbean population in English hospitals are three times those of white British people.

Even after accounting for differences in age, sex and geography, Black Caribbean deaths are still 1.8 times those of white British, while Pakistani deaths are 2.7 times as high, and Black African fatalities three times higher, the study said.

The Lib Dems had asked the government for information on how many BAME people had tested positive for the virus but health minister Nadine Dorries said the data was “not currently available”.

Lib Dem equalities spokesperson Christine Jardine said: “The data demonstrating the disproportionate impact of Covid-19 on BAME communities is deeply alarming. 

“The government must do everything in its power to understand what lies behind this worrying trend. 

“It is shocking that the government appear not to have collected data on ethnicity as part of their Covid-19 testing programme. 

“This leaves a huge blindspot in terms of identifying patterns in the wider transmission of this virus. 

“We should be collecting this information in real time, to allow for thorough analysis and to inform any strategies to protect vulnerable groups and reduce transmission.

“Relying on analysis of NHS data after the crisis has passed will be too late to inform ministers’ response to the pandemic.”

Responding to the Lib Dems’ parliamentary question asking for testing data, Dorries said: “Data on the number of people who have been tested, tested positive, and died from Covid-19 are not currently available in the format requested.

“Public Health England is gathering and analysing data to measure the impact of Covid-19 across different population groups. 

“This includes work to analyse confirmed cases, hospitalisations and deaths relating to Covid-19 by ethnicity, where this data is available.”

The IFS report also suggested that minority groups should have fewer deaths per capita than the white British majority, given the average age profile and geographic locations.

While many minority groups live disproportionately in cities such as London and Birmingham, which have more Covid-19 deaths, most are also younger on average than the population as a whole, which should make them less vulnerable.

The type of jobs where BAME workers are disproportionately represented also had an impact on their exposure to the virus or its economic consequences. 

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A postman wearing protective personal equipment walks through East Ham, east London.

While in the population as a whole women are more likely to work in shutdown sectors, this is only the case for the white ethnic groups.

Bangladeshi men are four times as likely as white British men to have jobs in shuttered industries, due in large part to their heavy concentration in the restaurant sector, with Pakistani men nearly three times as likely, partly due to their concentration in taxi driving.

Black African and Black Caribbean men are both 50% more likely to be in shutdown sectors.

But those who continue to work are often in key frontline roles, at higher risk of exposure to the virus itself because of the jobs they perform.

More than 20% of Black African women of working age are employed in health and social care roles.

Pakistani men are 150% more likely to work in healthcare roles than their white British counterparts and while the Indian ethnic group makes up just 3% of the working age population of England and Wales, they account for 14% of doctors.

Another possible factor behind disproportionately high death rates could be underlying health problems - two-thirds of Bangladeshi men over aged 60 have a long-term condition that would put them at particular risk from infection.

Professor Lucinda Platt, from the London School of Economics and a member of the IFS Deaton Review of Inequalities panel, said: “There are striking differences in economic vulnerability between ethnic groups.

“Bangladeshi men are four times as likely as white British men to have jobs in shutdown industries, with Pakistani men nearly three times as likely; and household savings are lower than average among Black Africans, Black Caribbeans and Bangladeshis.

“By contrast Indians and the largely foreign-born other white group do not seem to be facing disproportionate economic risks.”

Meanwhile, concerns about the impact of Covid-19 on BAME medics and carers has led NHS England to identify them as being at potentially greater risk.

Professor Tim Cook, honorary professor in anaesthesia at the University of Bristol, said: “The disproportionately high number of BAME health and social care workers dying from Covid-19 is striking, so I welcome news that NHS England has recommended these individuals to be identified as potentially at greater risk.

“Our analysis showed 63% of healthcare workers who have died from coronavirus were BAME individuals.”