Experiences of the pandemic have varied but for people from Black, Asian and ethnic minority communities, those experiences have been particularly cruel.

As Black History Month draws to a close, I want to reflect on the contribution of Black people to the NHS, and talk about the Patients Association's commitment to being an inclusive organisation and our aspirations for increasing our work with Black communities.


Since it began in 1948, the NHS has relied on overseas healthcare professionals to staff it. Even now, the proportion of people from minority backgrounds who work in the NHS, is far greater than the actual proportion among the working population – 21% compared to 13%.

And yet, staff from ethnic minority backgrounds were far more likely to die from COVID-19 at the start of the pandemic as were white members of the population.  Nearly two thirds of staff deaths from COVID-19 were Black, Asian or ethnic minority during the first wave of COVID-19 in 2020. At the same time in the general population, mortality for people of Black African or Black Caribbean ethnicity was two, to two and a half times higher than for white people.

Disproportionate effect of COVID-19

The reasons behind these differences are various.  For NHS staff, it is believed that more ethnic minority staff work directly with patients so were more likely to be exposed to the virus but workplace culture and the supply of personal protective equipment are believed to have contributed to the disproportionate impact on Black Asian and minority ethnic staff. 

In the general population, the fact that the health status of Black people living in the UK is generally poorer than the majority white population played a role in the pandemic’s impact on Black communities.

Improving our partnership with Black communities

As an organisation, our purpose is to ensure everybody can access and benefit from the health and care they need to live well. We work to fulfil this equitably and for the benefit of all. But we are aware we need to do more to involve members of Black communities in the work we are doing.

The appointment of our Head of Patient Partnership is critical to that work. This role is about building strong patient engagement activities throughout all areas of our work and helping us work with and support a wide range of people and communities.

Sarah Tilsed, our Head of Patient Partnership, has established our lived experience advisory panel, which is made up of people from groups that are often overlooked by health and social care services. Half of the places on the panel have been reserved for people from Black and minority ethnic communities. The panel has already met twice and will continue to meet until the spring of 2022 when we’ll evaluate what we’ve achieved and consider the panel's future.

We’re also extending the diversity of groups and organisations we’re in contact with. Despite being a well-established organisation, our recent members survey has made it clear that until patients need advice on how to navigate the healthcare system or want to make a complaint, not every patient knows about us. With the disproportionately poorer health experienced by Black people, one of our aspirations is to develop strong links with community groups who can tell us about their community’s need and how we can help them improve partnership working with health and social care services.

Looking to the future

When the Patients Association was formed in 1963 there were around a quarter of a million Black Caribbeans in the UK. Now, the Black community in the UK numbers around 1.9 million, many of whom are second and even third generation Black Britons.

That so many people from these communities have poorer health outcomes is of major concern to the Patients Association. We believe that patient partnership is one of the best ways to improve health outcomes for all patients, regardless of their background. For communities with poorer outcomes, who have historically been marginalised, and whose choices have not been explored, we think it’s essential.

 Banner photo by Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona on Unsplash