Still on the journey: Windrush 2020

The impact of COVID-19 on our black and minority ethnic (BME) staff and communities, as well as the powerful Black Lives Matter movement, have placed a unique significance to this year’s Windrush anniversary.

It makes me think of not just how far we have come since the arrival of the Windrush in 1948, but also of how far we have yet to travel on the journey of equity and inclusion.

Ever since the turn of the twentieth century, successive governments have resolved national workforce crises through recruiting workers from overseas. The period immediately after the Second World War was no different.

In June 1948, the merchant vessel Empire Windrush arrived at Tilbury Docks carrying 492 workers from the Caribbean. They came to Britain to assist with post-war reconstruction. Many of the Windrush generation would go on to work in, and thus support the establishment of, the newly created National Health Service (NHS).

The arrival of the Windrush helped to mark a new chapter in both the birth of our NHS and the growth of multicultural Britain.

In fact, the notion of a parent or grandparent arriving during the middle of the last century, with nothing but a few pounds in their pocket and a small suitcase to hand is not alien to many BME folk in the UK, including myself.

The impact that generation made on society is significant. Many aspects of British society today would be unrecognisable without the contributions which immigration has made over the generations: from our NHS to the monarchy, our language and literature, our culture and food, and even the sports teams and players that we cheer daily.

I also think back to the 2012 Olympic Games in London, and the opening ceremony that featured the Windrush arrival as part of its popular account of how our history has shaped us and our institutions.

But there is also a darker episode of British history, one that resurfaced just a few weeks ago with the bringing down of slaver Edward Colton’s statue in my home city of Bristol. The fact is that our journey of becoming the modern society that we are today, includes a history of profound racial disparities – and the struggles for equality and inclusion.

And yes, that struggle continues today: in our daily lives and within the very institutions built on the hardship of our elders. But it is also true that the only way we can work collaboratively on our shared future is by learning the reality of our origins, embracing the facts, and by sharing those narratives with others in a way that will make positive difference.

All of us, whether we are immigrants ourselves, the children and grandchildren of immigrants, or able to trace our family histories back to much earlier arrivals to Britain, have a role to play in achieving the goal of a better and brighter future, for this, and future generations.

And yet this agenda should not be the burden for BME folk alone; white allies have an even greater role to play in upholding a positive vision of an inclusive and shared society which is welcoming, just and fair to all.

We know that seven decades following the arrival of the Windrush, BME staff in the NHS are still more likely to be under-represented at senior levels in the NHS workforce and often have poorer experiences of the workplace environment.

The Workforce Race Equality Standard (WRES) shows that NHS organisations are beginning to make some progress in these areas, and of course, there is still much more work to do.

The NHS has committed to go further to drive improvement in race equality across all parts of the system, and for our diverse communities, by recently announcing the establishment of the NHS Race and Health Observatory – a new and independent centre hosted by the NHS Confederation.

We can no longer afford to escape the responsibility of our tomorrow by evading it today; now is the time to make the difference that our patients, communities and our diverse workforce need and deserve.

“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” James Baldwin. 
Dr Habib Naqvi

Dr Habib Naqvi has a background in equality and diversity policy, public health, and health psychology. Habib is the Policy Lead for the NHS Workforce Race Equality Standard and is leading on the inclusion of the WRES within national policy levers.

Before joining NHS England in 2013, Habib worked on the development of national equality and diversity policy at the Department of Health, where he led on the development of the Equality Delivery System for the NHS and took the lead for coordinating the health sector’s response to the Ministerial review of the Equality Duty.

Habib has experience in academia and research, including holding a strong portfolio of healthcare research.