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Fresh light has been shed on the inequalities facing black and ethnic minority nurses during the Covid-19 crisis, with a survey suggesting they have found it harder to get protective equipment (PPE) than their white colleagues.
Only 43% of BME nursing staff in high risk environments on the coronavirus front line, including intensive care units, had access to enough face and eye protective equipment, according to the Royal College of Nursing survey.
“The Covid-19 pandemic has exposed deep seated inequalities for ethnic minority nursing and midwifery professionals”
In comparison, the survey found 66% of white British nursing staff reported having sufficient access to the same equipment.
This disparity was apparent in access to fluid-repellent gowns – with 37% of BME staff reporting that they did not have enough to use during their shifts, compared to 19% of white British staff.
More than half (53%) of BME respondents reported they had been told to re-use single-use PPE, compared to 42% of their white British counterparts.
The RCN survey, which involved 5,023 nurses across all sectors and was carried out from 7 -11 May, comes in the wake of widespread and ongoing shortages of PPE for health professionals during the pandemic.
The findings also add to emerging evidence on the issue of work safety for healthcare staff from BME backgrounds during the pandemic, with concerns raised that they were being put at greater risk and more were dying as a result.
Evidence collected by Nursing Times and other sources suggests that health and care professionals from BME backgrounds are overrepresented in the mortality figures from Covid-19.
To some degree, this reflects trends seen in the general population, but concerns flagged with Nursing Times, along with separate surveys, have indicated that BME staff have felt extra pressure to work on the coronavirus front line.
Of the RCN survey respondents, 73% described themselves as white British, 14% as from a BME background, 9% as white Irish and 4% were listed as “other” or preferred not to disclose.
A gap in PPE training was reported by nurses in non-high risk environments, which again revealed racial disparity – 40% of BME nurses said they had not had enough training, compared to 31% of white British nurses.
Across all settings, almost a quarter of BME staff reported having no confidence that their employer was doing enough to adequately protect them from Covid-19. Only 11% of white British staff reported the same concern.
The RCN said it was planning to repeat the survey on a regular basis to monitor PPE access and infection prevention and control measures during the Covid-19 crisis.
Dame Donna Kinnair, RCN chief executive and general secretary, described the latest findings as “simply unacceptable”.
She said: “It is simply unacceptable that we are in a situation where BME nursing staff are less protected than other nursing staff.
“These results reinforce our call for BME nursing staff to have specific risk assessments to reflect the risks they face as a result of Covid-19.
“All of our nursing staff must have the protection they need, and action must be taken urgently to ensure they are all kept safe.”
Commenting on the survey, Andrea Sutcliffe, chief executive and registrar of the Nursing and Midwifery Council, said she was “deeply concerned”.
She added: “All health and care professionals, no matter their background, should have access to the PPE they need to keep themselves and those they care for safe.
“The Covid-19 pandemic has exposed deep seated inequalities for ethnic minority nursing and midwifery professionals,” said Ms Sutcliffe.
“Their experiences cannot be ignored and I hope this survey leads to concerted action by all partners across the health and care system to secure much needed improvements.”
On 14 April the NMC released a statement on PPE for registrants around on difficult decisions on the provision of care without adequate equipment, in the wake of the RCN telling members to refuse treatment as a last resort.
Several studies have been published highlighting risk factors for developing severe Covid-19 or dying from it, including being from a BME background.
Public Health England is currently investigating the health inequalities faced by BME people during the Covid-19 pandemic following concerns about the death rate. The review is expected to be published by the end of this month.
Dr Habib Naqvi, deputy director of NHS England’s Workforce Race Equality Standard (WRES), responded to the findings: “Ahead of findings of the Public Health England investigation into the impact of Covid-19 on people from BME backgrounds, hospitals have been asked to take the precautionary measures including risk-assessing staff at potentially greater risk, and if any colleague is concerned, they should raise this with their trust and be listened to.”
To commemorate the nursing staff who have lost their lives during the pandemic, Nursing Times has created a dedicated memorial page, including a list of names and map that are regularly updated.