Wed 27 May 2020

As British Muslims on the healthcare frontline bear the brunt of COVID-19 fatalities, Dr Shazad Amin joins mounting calls for Public Health England to reverse its decision.

Share this article

The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again: but already it was impossible to say which was which.

George Orwell, Animal Farm

In 1997, the race equality think tank, the Runnymede Trust, published a groundbreaking report Islamophobia – Challenge For Us All, which first introduced the term “Islamophobia” into the wider socio-political discourse in this country.

Its chair at the time was Trevor Philips, who would go on to become the first chair of the newly formed Equality and Human Rights Commission in 2007. Philips was thus, for many years, at the vanguard of the fight for religious and racial equality in the UK.

However, since then, he has undergone a strange conversion to becoming the darling of right-wing think tanks, such as Civitas and Policy Exchange, which oppose the definition of Islamophobia proposed by the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on British Muslims – one which has been widely accepted by community-based Muslim groups such as the Muslim Council of Britain and MEND. It has also been accepted across the political spectrum by all major parties except the Conservative Party, which is mired in accusations of Islamophobia within its ranks.

In the Policy Exchange report Defining Islamophobia, Phillips said: “Unfortunately, the APPG’s confused report Islamophobia Defined demonstrates that its authors appear to understand neither the concept of racism nor the meaning of Islamophobia.” 

But, it appears that neither does Phillips. He is currently suspended from the Labour Party on allegations of Islamophobia and has a track record of making Islamophobic comments, including but not limited to, the following:

  • That British Muslims are becoming a “nation within a nation” 
  • That a Muslim family fostering a non-Muslim girl was “akin to child abuse” 
  • That Muslims “see the world differently” from others in the UK 

Such comments have the potential to fuel further discrimination and hatred towards Muslims at a time of rising Islamophobia in the UK in recent years, where Muslims comprise approximately 50% of the victims of religious hate crime – more than all other religious groups put together.  

Phillips’ views are even more important given the vital role that doctors and other health and care professionals from the Muslim and British and Minority Ethnic (BAME) community have been playing on the frontline of the COVID-19 crisis. Data from NHS Digital shows that, as of September 2019, Muslims comprised approximately 10% of the total medical workforce, and approximately 17% of those doctors where the religion was declared. Overall, BAME doctors represent 41% of the medical workforce.  

This over-representation is sadly reflected in the deaths in the NHS and medical workforce due to COVID-19. A study reported by the Health Service Journal examining the deaths of 119 NHS staff from COVID-19 revealed that, of the 35 nurses and midwives who have died, 71% have been of BAME origin and, of the 19 doctors who have died, 94% have been of BAME origin. Since this latter report, 25 doctors have now sadly died and we estimate that 13 of these have been Muslim.

Data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) shows that black people are more than four times as likely to die from COVID-19 as white people and that Bangladeshi and Pakistani males (the vast majority of whom are Muslim) are three times as likely to die. ONS estimates from 2019 show that the percentage of Muslims in England is approximately 5.6% and the percentage of BAME community is 15.2%, clearly showing the disproportionate toll of COVID-19 on our Muslim and BAME communities. 

Of the 35 nurses and midwives who have died, 71% have been of BAME origin and, of the 19 doctors who have died, 94% have been of BAME origin.

This has rightly been the subject of great concern and, in response to this, the Government’s announcement of a review by Public Health England into BAME deaths from COVID-19 has been welcome. However, this has now been tainted by the appointment of Trevor Phillips as its BAME advisor.

A plethora of Muslim and BAME medical organisations have objected to his appointment. There has also been wider condemnation from black individuals and organisations such as Lord Simon Woolley from Operation Black Vote and InfluencHers, a collective of Black British women which wrote an open letter stating that “Trevor Phillips is now probably more famously known by many BAME community groups as having a recent history of discarding the very real issues and consequences of structural racism in the UK”.

Either Public Health England is unaware of some of Phillips’ views comments or it simply does not care. Ignorance or indifference, the end result is the same: his appointment is deeply insensitive and insulting to the Muslim community, as a whole, and particularly to the grieving families from BAME and Muslim communities.

The conclusions of any review by Public Health England that is co-authored by Phillips will lack credibility from the outset, and risks not being accepted by a significant section of the BAME and Muslim community.

Actions speak louder than words. There is little point in the Government and Public Health England praising the contribution of Muslim and BAME health workers on the one hand, and then sticking a metaphorical two fingers up at them by appointing someone like him. The message heard is: ‘thanks for all your help folks, but this is what we really think of you’.

It is thus vital, that at a time of national crisis, bodies such as Public Health England command the confidence of all ethnic and religious communities that make up our great nation — and especially those who have given the ultimate sacrifice in the fight against COVID-19.

This terrible decision must be reversed with immediate effect.

Dr Shazad Amin is CEO of Muslim Engagement & Development (MEND)

More stories filed under CORONAVIRUS CRISIS

More stories filed under Argument