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Former equalities chief Trevor Phillips has responded to widespread criticism of his appointment to the government’s review of the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) communities.
Official figures show more than a third of people in intensive care from Covid-19 are from BAME backgrounds – well over double the 13% proportion in the UK population as a whole.
NHS England data for the first 12,600 deaths from the virus in English hospitals revealed that Black people are dying from the virus at almost twice the rate of their proportion of the population.
Phillips and Professor Richard Webber – who together run specialist research company Webber Phillips – were asked by Public Health England (PHE) to provide expert support to an inquiry into why increasing numbers of victims of the coronavirus pandemic are from BAME backgrounds.
This has sparked outcry from people from BAME communities with many branding the move as “shameful” and “alarming”, given his suspension from the Labour Party over Islamophobia allegations and previous offensive comments on race.
Those condemning the move include prominent Black and Muslim figures.
Acknowledging the discontent around his appointment, Phillips – who was formerly chairman of the Equality and Human Rights Commission – told HuffPost UK that his priority at this time is assisting with the inquiry.
“Everyone should be contributing anything they can to tackling this crisis,” he said.
“Anyone can see the research Richard and I have already done on our website, which explains why we’ve been asked to help.”
While welcoming the review itself, the Muslim Council of Britain – the umbrella group for leading mosques and other Islamic institutions – slammed Phillips’ appointment.
Writing in a statement on Saturday, Harun Khan – the organisation’s secretary general said: “It is wholly inappropriate to give that responsibility to someone being investigated for racism.
“The decision is particularly insensitive given that British Muslims overwhelmingly come from BAME communities and so many Muslim doctors have died at the front line of this pandemic.”
On Saturday, Yasmin Qureshi, MP for Bolton South East, penned a letter of complaint over Phillips’ appointment to PHE chief executive Duncan Selbie.
“To appoint Trevor Phillips, who has boasted about being labelled as an ‘Islamophobe’ undermines the integrity and credibility of the review,” she wrote on Twitter.
Dr Zubaida Haque, deputy director of Runnymede, the UK’s leading race equality thinkthank, posted: ”#COVID19 is not a culture war. It’s the difference between life and death. The fact that Public Health England have appointed Trevor Phillips, someone with concerning attitudes towards Muslim communities as the main adviser into the racial disparities review is highly concerning.”
Tweeting to Phillips directly on Friday, Journalist Afua Hirsch said: “Dear @TrevorPTweets, you’ve supported colonialism, claim Muslims are “a nation within a nation”, comparison of Grenfell Tower to a “Tower of Babel”. Do you really feel comfortable participating in an inquiry that urgently needs the confidence of ethnic minority people?”
Nels Abbey, author of best-selling book, ‘Think Like A White Man’, wrote: “I can only hope @PHE_UK don’t know how Trevor Phillips is perceived in BAME communities. This, sadly, once again proves why we desperately need real and muscular diversity in all levels of our public bodies. They’re playing politics with a matter of life and death.”
Some have welcomed the news including Toby Young, general secretary of the Free Speech Union, who described Phillips as the “voice of reason”.
Dr Rakib Ehsan, a columnist at Spiked, also made positive observations around Phillips’ appointment.
Professor Kevin Fenton, PHE’s regional director, London, said: “Trevor Phillips and Professor Richard Webber have been asked to support this critical work as their specialist consultancy has the right skills and experience. We need to move fast to understand why and what can be done about this.”
So, how exactly will Phillips and Webber assist with the inquiry?
Well, Phillips told HuffPost UK that the government will be using his company’s Origins software, which provides information on ethnicity, “amongst other things”.
“We’re delighted to put our team - which together has more than a hundred years experience in this field - and our technology at the disposal of PHE to help it solve the puzzle of who is most vulnerable and why,” he said.
Webber Phillips provides unique data streams and evidence-based intelligence in the fields of gender and ethnocultural diversity.
The algorithm, developed by Webber, a visiting professor at Newcastle University, draws on a database of 1.2 billion individual records globally.
It uses 2.5 million family names and 800,000 first names to build algorithms that he says can link names to an individual’s ethnic or cultural origin from around the world with more than 95 per cent accuracy.
The results are cross-checked against publicly available sources such as LinkedIn profiles and companies’ annual reports.
“[The algorithm] can even show what might be called social integration — the likelihood of [people of ethnic-minority heritage] using Anglo-Saxon first names,” Phillips told the Financial Times in 2018.
The company has a wide range of clients including local authorities, retailers and police forces.
Payment in exchange for this service has not been discussed with the government as yet, Phillips said. “We think the priority is to get the job done,” he added.
This came as Doreen Lawrence, whose son Stephen was murdered by racists in 1993, was appointed by Labour leader Keir Starmer to lead a team looking at why the Covid-19 outbreak is disproportionately impacting people from BAME backgrounds, including NHS and care staff.