COVID pandemic has ‘shone a light on inequalities’ in the NHS

UNISON health conference calls for the NHS recovery from the pandemic to include an end to staff discrimination

UNISON’s virtual health conference closed with a trio of motions dedicated to the fight against discrimination within the NHS, as the health service moves forward after the pandemic.

As a motion on “dismantling inequalities” during the recovery put it: “The NHS has an urgent and compelling duty to eliminate the stark inequalities that affect staff with protected characteristics – inequalities that were not caused by COVID but which have been magnified and exacerbated by it.”

Naomi Byron of Homerton Hospital branch told conference that the experiences of some of her branch colleagues during the pandemic “shone a huge spotlight on the existing inequalities in society and, unfortunately, that includes in the NHS.

“You see the institutional racism that exists across society being reflected in the NHS, and many of the sections of society who are targets of discrimination and disadvantage often suffering the worse, health-wise and financially during the pandemic.

“The NHS has a special position in British society,” she added, “which is why the NHS should be leading the fight against these prejudices.”

That motion charged the health service group executive to:

  • Encourage more Black members to become active across all branch roles and within bargaining structures;
  • Work with the national Black members committee to develop a policy agenda for staff in light of COVID experience;
  • Work with the national disabled members committee on campaigning and bargaining strategies to promote disability equality, including taking account of COVID experience and implications;
  • Work with employers to ensure risk assessments and redeployments are actively reviewed and monitored to guard against all forms of discrimination and disadvantage;
  • Contribute to the COVID public inquiry on treatment of staff, including disproportionate impact on sections of the workforce by protected characteristic and also by employment status, highlighting the experiences of the casualised and outsourced workforce.

Further motions specifically tackled discrimination against Black and LGBT+ members.

Proposing the first, Rakiya Suleiman (pictured above) told delegates that the pandemic had revealedall that is wrong in our workplace and community”, with Black members “feeling targeted and discriminated against.”

Many Black members have reported their struggle to be fully protected at work, along with their fear of being disciplined and sanctioned for speaking out. “This has caused mental trauma and anxiousness for many Black workers,” she said.

A 2018 survey had revealed that Black staff were 1.24 times more likely to enter the formal disciplinary process than white staff.

The HSGE will now:

  • Work with health branches to change the entire approach to disciplinary action against Black members and Black staff by promoting initiatives around a “just and learning culture”, so that in general the NHS will “focus on learning, not blame”;
  • Work with the national Black members’ committee to encourage branches to seek appropriate training, facility time and support for branch officers to assess patterns of discrimination in disciplinary processes affecting Black members and Black staff;
  • Continue to promote the Race for Equality campaign;
  • Explore how UNISON health branches can be supported to raise awareness within the NHS, so that they may effectively address “unconscious bias” in all aspects of disciplinary procedure decision-making;
  • Explore how to support health branches in the recruitment, participation and development of more Black members officers/stewards to support these initiatives.

Proposing the final motion, transgender and non-binary inclusion policies, Michael Craig of the national LGBT+ members committee told delegates: “We know that trans workers are more likely to experience greater levels of harassment compared to non-trans workers.

“We need to challenge discriminatory behaviour wherever we see it. These behaviours often happen as a result of a lack of information and education. One of the ways we can start to address these attacks is to ensure that employers have inclusive workplace policies, practices and training.

“We recognise that many branches have worked with their employers to move forward in having fully inclusive workplaces,” Mr Craig added. “But we now need to step up and work to ensure that all of our workplaces are fully inclusive.”

The HSGE will encourage branches and regions to work with employers to adopt policies that are inclusive of transgender and non-binary people, and to negotiate for transgender and non-binary inclusive policies for staff providing NHS services for private companies.

It will also work with the NHS Staff Council equality, diversity and inclusion sub-group to ensure that handbook updates promote the use of non-gendered language.