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Action is needed to show nurses of colour that their contribution is valued and their lives matter, as opposed to words, nursing leaders have warned on the third annual Windrush Day.
On this day in 1948, the first group of people arrived in Essex from the Caribbean on the Empire Windrush cruise ship, pictured above, answering the UK’s call for public sector workers following the Second World War.
“There is still so much to do to level the playing field for people of colour in the UK”
Many of these passengers and the other members of the Windrush Generation – along with their descendants – were or would go on to become nurses, helping to create the National Health Service.
The government announced in 2018 that 22 July would become an annual holiday to celebrate the British-Caribbean community and to thank those who helped to rebuild Britain after the war.
The designation came in the wake of the Windrush Scandal in which stories of Commonwealth citizens being wrongfully detained, deported and denied their rights came to light.
Windrush Day this year is particularly poignant as it coincides with a time of national and international reflection on the racial inequalities in our society brought to stark attention by Covid-19 and the Black Lives Matters movement.
Professor Greta Westwood, chief executive of the Florence Nightingale Foundation, said more needed to be done to “redress the current imbalance” in nursing in terms of race.
While 20% of the overall NHS nursing and midwifery workforce in England is from a black, Asian or ethnic minority (BAME) background, the percentage reduces to 4% for director-level nursing posts.
“It saddens me today to see that our BAME staff, whose own ancestors helped to build the NHS, still feel that they have to break through glass ceilings to succeed,” said Professor Westwood.
The foundation launched the Windrush Leadership Programme to help BAME nurses at bands 5 to 6 reach senior leadership positions and now also runs Windrush Leadership Scholarships.
Some of the BAME nurses and midwives who applied to the programme had been in their band 5 roles for more than 20 years.
“Since its foundation, the Windrush Leadership Programme has helped BAME staff find their voice and rightfully claim their place as senior leaders in the NHS,” added Professor Westwood.
“I urge my fellow NHS and other healthcare leaders to redress the current imbalance. We as the foundation will continue to foster this talent, but it is our collective responsibility to work together. Action not words create change.”
One Windrush scholar, Deborah Hylton, said when she joined the programme, she was working as a band 6 health visitor and was struggling with “self-doubt” after being continuously turned down for band 7 roles.
Inspired by her sister and sister-in-law who both came to the UK from the Caribbean when she was 13 and trained as nurses, Ms Hylton joined the nursing profession as a mature student with two young children to “give back to my community”.
She said the “confidence and skills” she gained through the course helped her to secure her current role as a lecturer in children’s nursing at London South Bank University.
“I am now in a position where I can encourage student nurses from all ethnic groups that nothing is impossible. I am able to stand in front of them as their lecturer and role model and make them aware of another career direction that nursing can offer,” said Ms Hylton.
Meanwhile, staff from four London hospitals will tonight mark Windrush Day by gathering outside their buildings at 5pm and taking a knee to show solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement.
The protest will be observed by workers at St Thomas Hospital, Kings College Hospital, South London and Maudsley Hospitals, and Lewisham University Hospital.
The action is being organised by Unite the union at Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust, and Royal College of Nursing Inner South East London.
Mark Boothroyd, Unite branch secretary for Guy’s and St Thomas’, said: “The NHS has the same problems of systemic racism as every other part of society.
“With over 50% of nursing staff in London being from BME backgrounds and directly affected by this, its important staff can show their support for Black Lives Matter, and push their own employers to make changes to tackle the ongoing issue of racism in the NHS.”
The RCN is also using Windrush Day to urge the Home Office to grant indefinite leave to remain to all international health and care workers who have worked in the UK during the pandemic.
“The NHS has the same problems of systemic racism as every other part of society”
Dame Donna Kinnair, RCN chief executive and general secretary, said: “The best way to honour the legacy of Windrush Day is to ensure no nurse, or health and care worker, who trained overseas, and helped in this pandemic, feels alien in this country.
“Granting automatic, indefinite leave to remain to international health and care workers who helped tackle this virus should be instinctive.
“The services and support that they provide, though brought to the fore through this pandemic, have always been essential. They are, and always will be, key workers.”
More than one in 10 of the total registered nursing workforce in the UK come from overseas, according to the Nursing and Midwifery Council. As of September 2019, 77,065 registered nurses came from outside the European Economic Area.
However, international nursing staff must wait five years before they can apply for indefinite leave to remain and are required to take a test to prove their Britishness before they are granted it.
Another organisation demanding action over words is the Mary Seacole Trust which exists to educate the public about the life of the British-Jamaican nursing pioneer who cared for soldiers during the Crimean War, working against both racism and sexism.
The trust oversaw the creation of a Mary Seacole statue in 2016 in the grounds of St Thomas’ Hospital, becoming the first statue in the UK in honour of a named black woman.
To mark Windrush Day, the organisation is calling for a national “black plaque scheme” to educate the public on UK black history.
It has written to the prime minister and London mayor to request that plaques are put up next to all British statues to explain the historical context, with the wording decided in collaboration with members of the black community.
Trevor Sterling, chair of the Mary Seacole Trust, said: “Windrush Day has a huge significance for me, my family and countless other black people in the UK.
“Since the Empire Windrush docked at Tilbury in 1948, we have been contributing to our communities in Britain, and yet like Mary Seacole, our contributions are not fully recognised.
“There is still so much to do to level the playing field for people of colour in the UK, as seen most recently in the disproportionate number of BAME coronavirus deaths.
“Education about black British history must be central to all policy changes. If we are to truly address racism in the UK, we must first educate British citizens.”