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‘What’s the point?’ Covid inquiry slammed for ignoring structural racism

Lawyer for bereaved families says it is ‘shocking’ that inquiry won’t examine impact of racism on mortality rates

Ruby Lott-Lavigna
28 February 2023, 4.25pm

A doctor rings patients during the Covid-19 pandemic as part of a campaign to combat vaccine hesitancy.


PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

Excluding the impact of structural racism from the Covid-19 inquiry would be a “glaring omission”, a preliminary hearing has been told.

Campaigners have called the inquiry’s decision “shocking” as it reaches its final preliminary stage.

Allison Munroe KC, who is representing bereaved families, told a preliminary hearing of the UK Covid-19 Inquiry on Tuesday that “the issue of structural discrimination and racism should be investigated as a key issue in each and every module”.

“If this inquiry is to properly investigate the issue of systemic failings,” she said, “not to consider structural discrimination would be a glaring omission.”

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Munroe, who was addressing the chair of the inquiry Heather Hallett DBE, explained that the inquiry need not examine structural racism as “an abstract concept”, but should include discussion of it in all aspects of the inquiry.

A lawyer representing the inquiry said that including structural racism was “​​neither necessary nor proportionate,” but that “inequalities are very much at the forefront of our minds.”

Concerns were also raised about groups excluded from participating in the inquiry, such as migrant groups and groups representing the Gypsy and Roma traveller community, who were not considered core participants.

The independent Covid-19 inquiry began its preliminary stages last year and seeks to scrutinise how the UK handled the pandemic in which more than 200,000 people died. Its three modules will cover resilience and preparedness, decision-making in the UK, and healthcare.

Data released last week from the Office for National Statistics shows how mortality rates from Covid were worse for racialised people. According to the stats, the death rate for Bangladeshi men was 3.1 times greater than for white British men, and the mortality rate for Black Caribbean women was 1.5 times that of white British women.

Charlie Williams, spokesperson for Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice, said: “It’s absolutely shocking that the inquiry has doubled down on its decision not to examine structural racism. The evidence that you were significantly more likely to die from Covid if you were BAME [Black, Asian or minority ethnic] is clear cut.

“How can the inquiry be expected to learn lessons that will save lives in the future if it won’t touch such an important issue? What’s the point of a public inquiry that is scared to ask challenging questions?”

openDemocracy has reached out to the inquiry for comment.

The Runnymede Trust today released an open letter expressing worries that structural racism would not be included in the inquiry.

On Tuesday, concerns were also raised about the decision to use PR firms linked to the Tory party for the ‘listening exercise’ part of the inquiry, as revealed by openDemocracy.

Munroe called for “a proper public explanation from both the inquiry and the companies involved as to why they say there is no conflict of interest”.

She added: “We note that, even if there is no conflict of interest, the involvement of such companies may potentially do real damage to the whole project.”

Alongside the exclusion of an analysis of structural racism, Williams said this was an additional concern for the campaign group.

“[Excluding structural racism] follows the inquiry’s disgraceful decision to outsource listening to bereaved families to third parties who have an obvious conflict of interest, including 23Red, who worked with the Cabinet Office throughout the pandemic. Increasingly it feels like we’re being excluded by the very inquiry we campaigned so hard to create.”

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