Brian Richardson pays tribute to the contribution BAME health workers made to the NHS, and the terrible price they are now paying.
Medical and support staff are making an extraordinary contribution to our survival and recovery at great risk to themselves. But a disproportionate number of those that have paid the ultimate price are from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) backgrounds. At the time of writing, the first 10 doctors and three of the first six nurses to die were from BAME. Since its inception in 1948, the NHS has been built and sustained by people from all around the world. In the early 1960s, the then Tory health minister Enoch Powell was directly responsiblefor a campaign that culminated in the recruitment of 18,000 doctors from India and Pakistan. Today, around 20 percent of the NHS’s 1.2 million strong workforce and 44 percent of medical staff are from BAME backgrounds.
Within 5 years of his appeal, Powell’s odious “Rivers of Blood” speech catapulted him into the role of the UK’s racist-in-chief. His earlier opportunism is the most blatant example of the cynicism with which the political establishment have used and abused migrant workers. It was by no means the last, as witnessed by the Windrush Scandal that targeted the very people who had answered Powell’s call to to come to the “Mother country”.
They arrived from the Caribbean as British citizens, worked and paid their taxes but, decades later, were unable to provide paperwork to prove their nationality. As a result, at a time when they were most in need, they were denied healthcare, benefits, pensions and employment. When the nature and scale of this scandal broke, the home secretary Amber Rudd was forced to resign and a review was announced.
The Windrush Lessons Learned Review was quietly published under the radar of the COVID19 crisis on 19 March. Written by Wendy Williams, a black woman and former defence solicitor who is now one of Her Majesty’s Inspectors of Constabulary, the report does contain criticisms of government policy. Hence she argues that: “Some ministers and senior officials…do not appear to accept the full extent of the injustice done to the Windrush Generation... Many gave the impression that the situation was unforeseen, unforeseeable and therefore unavoidable, whereas the evidence clearly shows that the sequence of events which culminated in the scandal while unforeseen were both foreseeable and avoidable.”
She also expresses “serious concerns that [the failings she uncovered] demonstrate an institutional ignorance towards the issues of race and the history of the Windrush Generation”. The review includes a number of harrowing case studies and concludes with 30 recommendations “for change and improvement” within the Home Office. The report is, however, hamstrung by the narrowness of its focus. So Williams comes to the astonishing conclusion that she is “unable to make a definitive finding of institutional racism within the department.”
The plain truth, as she acknowledges, is that the Windrush scandal emerged out of a deliberate decision by the Coalition government to scapegoat migrants. The catalyst for this was the rise of Nigel Farage’s UK Independence Party and its polling in the 2009 EU and 2014 EU elections, putting it on course for a major breakthrough at the 2015 general election.
It prompted home secretary Theresa May to initiate a “hostile environment’ in 2012. That in turn led to May’s inflammatory “Go Home” vans and the 2014 Immigration Act, which removed key protections for the Windrush generation. It is worth noting that just 6 Labour MPs including Jeremy Corbyn, Diane Abbott and John McDonnell, voted against the 2014 Act.
Further legislation followed in 2016, alongside a ramping up of anti-migrant rhetoric in the run up to the EU referendum. With Corbyn as Labour leader and Abbott as shadow home secretary, Labour did at least oppose the 2016 Bill, but the Tories’ majority made its passage inevitable. Real and effective opposition came from beyond Westminster, in the dogged determination of Windrush victims themselves, such as Paulette Wilson, Sarah O’Connor and Michael Braithwaite, supported by principled journalists, including Patrick Vernon and Amelia Gentleman, and community campaigns.
One of the highlights of this was a Stand Up To Racism rally in Windrush Square, south London, on the 20 April 2018 addressed by Abbott among others. It was extra-parliamentary activity such as this that led to the resignation of Rudd nine days later.
The Windrush Review was announced by Rudd’s successor Sajid Javid and published by his replacement Priti Patel. Regardless of their ethnic origins, these two have revealed themselves as ministers prepared to burnish their hardline credentials. So it was that as the virus began to spread, Patel was still seeking to deport Windrush migrants with criminal convictions.
Once again it took direct action to halt this shoddy display of machismo. More recently Patel was forced into granting an extension to the visas of doctors, nurses and paramedics to allow them to continue to “play a leading role in the NHS’s efforts to tackle coronavirus and save lives”. Meanwhile, Windrush-era nurses are being asked to come out of retirement to help fight the pandemic. Once again migrants are to be welcomed when it is convenient for the government
of the day.
We should demand more than a time limited extension of visas for a small cohort of people. Migrant workers also help to run the transport network, keep our streets and workplaces clean and pick and pack the food that we eat. Research from the Intensive Care National Audit and Research Centre suggests BAME communities have been disproportionately affected by Covid-19. We should argue not just for limited leave to remain for a few but for the free movement of all people, an equal and sustainable share of the world’s resources and ultimately for a very different sort of society.