Personal message from Sir Simon Stevens on Black Lives Matter and health inequalities

The following is a personal message from NHS Chief Executive Simon Stevens, shared internally yesterday with all NHS England and NHS Improvement staff.

Dear colleague,

For the first time in many weeks something other than the coronavirus pandemic has dominated the news: Black Lives Matter.

But these two moments are not disconnected. It is increasingly clear that COVID-19 is having a disproportionate impact on our black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) patients, friends and colleagues. And this in turn has brought into stark and urgent focus the layered impacts of years of disadvantage and inequality.

The flash point may have been righteous anger at the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. But it would be wrong to marginalise this moment by trying to compartmentalise it: as racism “over there in America, not here in Britain”. Or racism as “part of our history – from slavery to the Windrush, but not our lived present”.

That would be to misunderstand and obscure important truths about fairness and equality in modern Britain.

It’s part of the reason why last weekend we launched the NHS Race and Health Observatory, a new independent centre to stimulate understanding and action.

The Workforce Race Equality Standard (WRES) shows NHS organisations making some progress on core HR processes such as recruitment and selection, training opportunities, and disciplinary action. And over the last four years, the number of very senior managers of BAME background has increased by thirty per cent. But no-one thinks this is yet good enough, or fast enough.

Our chief people officer Prerana and chief nurse Ruth May will be updating you shortly on the NHS’ work to support employers protect staff as the COVID-19 pandemic continues.

However in my view the COVID-19 pandemic will be a fundamental inflection point for the NHS. Looking out over the next few months we have some big decisions to make on redesigned services, with an inequalities lens.

Because if we’re honest with ourselves, the NHS as an embedded part of society is both part of the problem and part of the solution. More systematic action is needed to tackle the underlying causes of health inequality. More intentional action is needed to deliver on the moral basis of the NHS – the pursuit of high quality care for all. And faster action is needed on the reality of the racism and discrimination experienced by many colleagues across the NHS.

We have the opportunity for a first discussion on this at our fortnightly all-staff briefing.

I look forward to taking stock and discussing next steps with you then.