This year we celebrate two anniversaries that are inextricably linked.
On June 22 1948, two weeks before the NHS was founded, the Empire Windrush docked at Tilbury, bringing the first wave of immigrants from the Caribbean. Many of the new arrivals were some of the first people to work in the newly formed health service launched days later 5 July. In the following year, there were mass recruitment campaigns across the empire, inviting British subjects to the ‘motherland’ to help re-build post-war Britain.
It is estimated that between 1948 and 1971, 100,000 nurses from the Caribbean and Africa came here to train. By 1960, 30% of junior doctors were from the Indian sub-continent. By the turn of the century, 73% of the GPs in Wales’s Rhonda Valley were South Asian. It is undeniable, that this institution we cherish, has been built and sustained by the black and brown migrants from the Empire.
70 years on, the NHS could still not function without its migrant and ethnic minority workforce. The NHS is the biggest employer of people from black and minority ethnic (BME) background in Europe. Over 40% of doctors are from BME background and 25% nurses and midwives. Many have spent their lifetimes working for the NHS.
And yet, despite those from BME background making up over 20% of the workforce, at senior levels in the NHS, less than 7% are from BME backgrounds. The Royal College of Nursing has reported that nurses from black and ethnic minority background have much less chance of being shortlisted for promotion than their white counterparts. They are also more likely to be formally disciplined than their white counterparts. Black and ethnic minority doctors receive more formal complaints than white doctors, and the GMC is currently carrying out an investigation after concerns of racism.
The outcry over the treatment of the Windrush generation last month had a sense of poignancy and irony. The Government politicians that expressed outrage, were the same people who implemented and support the ‘hostile environment’ policies. Last week, the NHS institutions held an awards ceremony to show their appreciation for their Windrush workforce. Yet, it was these same institutions that brought the discriminatory, racial policies of the home office into the health service. The policies that demand ‘foreign looking’ pregnant women to show their passports before they can have maternity care. The policies that left elderly members of the Windrush denied cancer treatment. The policies that allows the Home Office to access GP records of suspected migrant patients, as ‘they’ don’t have the same rights to confidentiality as the rest of us.
As we celebrate the anniversary of the Windrush generation, we must honour their contribution to the building and development of our cherished NHS. But we must also challenge the racism and discrimination that lies within the institution. And we must fight back against the hostile, discriminatory policies of this government – and we must stop those policies being played out within our NHS.
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