Race Matters

Why Runnymede is suing the government over its Covid-19 hiring practices

It is no secret that the Covid-19 pandemic has disproportionately impacted people of colour – including those on the front lines. Part of the problem is that those given top jobs are not representative of the general public. Here, Runnymede director Halima Begum outlines why the organisation is launching legal action against the government after it hired a Tory crony to head up its Test and Trace system. 

 

The Runnymede Trust has been consistently calling for more support and protection for BME groups in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic. As early as spring 2020, we knew that BME NHS workers were getting ill and dying at a disproportionate rate – yet the government has done little to combat the trend on a structural level. 

Numerous reports have demonstrated a number of systemic weaknesses in protecting BME NHS workers, including inadequate support and protection on the frontlines, where BME staff are most likely to be found. There have also been cases where minority staff are reported for complaining about lack of PPE, and told they will be investigated. And outside work, BME NHS staff have pointed out that often multiple adults from their household are working on the frontline – whether as doctors, nurses, administrative staff, porters or cleaners – heightening the level of risk they face. 

When we discuss race and Covid risk in the NHS, we must see these issues through a structural prism; specifically, one that acknowledges the effect of under-representation of BME staff at senior management levels in the NHS, and over-representation of BME staff at the proverbial coalface. According to the NHS Workforce Race Equality Standard report, just 6.4 percent of NHS “very senior management” (chief execs and board members) are BME, even though 20 percent of overall NHS staff fall into the bracket. BME staff in the NHS are more likely to face disciplinary proceedings in the NHS than white staff, and less likely to be shortlisted for a job.

That’s why, when the government hired Dido Harding and Mike Coupe to head up NHS Test and Trace (and the National Institute for Health Protection), Runnymede decided to call this out for what it is: a blatant act of cronyism. 

Neither Harding nor Coupe are medically trained. Neither has a lifetime of public administration under their belt. Far from it. Harding is the wife of a Conservative MP, and a friend of former prime minister David Cameron. She was also the CEO of TalkTalk – but was forced to quit when 156,000 customers had their private data hacked. Coupe’s best qualification, other than being good friends with Harding, is that he is the former CEO of Sainsbury’s. So, in many ways, both appointments exemplify equalities issues within the NHS. After all, when employers do not advertise, this can function as indirect discrimination, in particular on the grounds of race and disability. It also puts more BME lives at risk.

By hiring unqualified cronies for top jobs, the government fails its disproportionately
BME key workers.
Image by Tim Dennell
 

As a result, the Runnymede Trust and the Good Law Project jointly announced last week that we are taking the government to court over the closed recruitment process for Harding and Coupe. In our case, we are citing discrimination under the Equality Act 2010, and arguing that Westminster has breached its public sector equality duty by hiring unqualified friends in senior public sector roles. 

As our country navigates the dark months ahead, we are desperate for expertise and leadership. BME and other marginalised groups across the UK are deeply worried right now – not just about furlough and the risk of unemployment but, in many cases, about where the next meal is coming from. While the government hands out sinecures to its chums, people are dying. Clearly, we need a national pandemic response and disaster recovery plan that is led by the best qualified and most experienced scientists and public administrators the country can offer. 

The sad reality is that now, in the midst of a second national lockdown, the responsibility for much of the UK’s emergency response rests in the hands of a former telecommunications CEO, and a former supermarket CEO. The chumocracy has plummeted new lows. 

 

Header image by Number 10

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