NHS chiefs address ‘white privilege’ in health service

NHS - (Copyright PA Wire)
16:15pm, Wed 07 Oct 2020
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Health chiefs have said racism exists in the NHS and called for greater acknowledgement of “white privilege” in the service.

A discussion was held as part of NHS Providers’ virtual annual conference on how trust leaders were challenging themselves and their organisations to identify and tackle race inequality.

Patricia Miller, chief executive of Dorset County Hospital NHS Foundation Trust, described growing up in a mixed heritage household after her grandfather migrated to the UK among the final wave of Windrush immigrants to settle in the country.

Speaking to panellists on Wednesday, she said: “I think the reality for me is that the world is seen through the lens of a white person, it’s not seen through the lens of a person of colour.”

She added: “One thing I’ve learned from being an executive is that you can be the most senior person in an organisation and you’re not protected from racism.

“I knew there were a number of staff that, since my arrival at the organisation, had never spoken to me and I’m pretty sure that wasn’t because they don’t like my hairstyle or my approach, it’s simply the fact they don’t like my ethnicity.”

Roisin Fallon-Williams, chief executive of Birmingham and Solihull Mental Health NHS Foundation Trust, said it was a privilege to hear stories such as those shared by Ms Miller.

She said: “For me, discovering that I have white privilege, working in an organisation where we’re beginning to think more widely as a board, as senior leaders, about this term white privilege, it’s invoking all those things around ‘it doesn’t mean me because of my background’.

“I think about my dad, he once said to me ‘nobody knows I’m Irish until I open my mouth’, and that is so true but actually for many of us who are white, that have been in a place of suffering and being discriminated against, our ability to integrate because of how the system is set up for us is much greater and easier than it is for our colleagues of colour.”

NHS England needs to lead by example, it can’t talk about race equality when it doesn’t exist in its own organisation

She shared a story about a matron in the NHS who had been in every police cell in Birmingham “not because he committed a crime, but because he was black”.

Richard Mitchell, chief executive at Sherwood Forest Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, said white privilege was best summed up by an article he had read that was written by a non–white journalist with the headline, “I was stopped and searched for spinach”.

“In the past, I thought that my adult working life – going to university, graduate job and executive level role – was entirely because I’m a nice person and I work hard, but I do recognise this is not the case,” he said.

“Those achievements and opportunities have been heavily influenced by the privileges my parents gave me and the privileges I had access to.”

He said it was “embarrassing” that there were only eight chief executives at NHS trusts from minority backgrounds out of 250.

He said that some of the comments he had heard from colleagues included experiencing microaggressions at work and racism from patients.

The panellists were asked what they would say to Sir Simon Stevens, chief executive of NHS England, about white privilege.

Ms Miller replied: “NHS England needs to lead by example, it can’t talk about race equality when it doesn’t exist in its own organisation.”

Mr Mitchell’s message to Sir Simon was: “Lets seek solace that things have got better, but we now have to use the foundation stones in place to practically see much faster action quicker.”

It comes after NHS Providers chief executive Chris Hopson said there needed to be “concrete action” to tackle structural racism in the health service.

In a speech on Tuesday, he said: “Over the last nine months, two seismic events have shone a bright light on inequalities in our nation.

“First we had Covid-19, with its disproportionate impact on people of colour. Then we had the murder of George Floyd, together with the Black Lives Matter protests it triggered. Both exposing the invidious impact of health inequalities and of structural racism on our staff, our patients and our communities.”

A new study commissioned by London Mayor Sadiq Khan found that black people were at almost twice the risk of dying from Covid-19 than white people.

The report, released on Tuesday and conducted by researchers from the University of Manchester, found the disparity was partly due to long-standing socio-economic inequalities as well as the over-representation of BAME people in careers such as health and social care – professions more susceptible to exposure to the virus.

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