Coronavirus inequalities have changed as the pandemic has progressed which “strongly suggest” they are driven by the risk of infection rather than ethnicity as an independent risk factor, the Government has said.
The disproportionate impact on some ethnic groups is “largely a result of higher infection rates”, according to a report from the Cabinet Office’s Race Disparity Unit (RDU).
Factors that can increase infection risk include working in public-facing roles, deprivation, living in larger households and younger and older relatives living together.
The Government’s second quarterly report said good progress has been made to address Covid-19 disparities since October, but departments must redouble their efforts.
In particular, work is ongoing to promote vaccine uptake, with Equalities Minister, Kemi Badenoch, calling for everyone offered a vaccine to take the jab.
The report cites the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) as saying good vaccine uptake in ethnic minority groups is the most important factor in reducing the inequalities in infection rates and outcomes.
It also noted previous evidence which shows that all ethnic minority groups had a higher risk of dying with Covid-19 than white British people in the first wave.
However, in the second wave, the risk was reduced for black ethnic groups, while Bangladeshi and Pakistani people continued to experience an “alarming” higher risk compared to white people.
It said these changes, within such a short time period, “strongly suggest” these inequalities are driven by the risk of infection.
The document reads: “The disproportionate impact on ethnic minorities – apparent during the first wave and continuing for some ethnic groups during the second wave to date – is largely a result of higher infection rates for some ethnic groups.
“Ethnicity itself is not a risk factor for infection but people from ethnic minority groups are more likely to experience various risk factors for infection.”
The interaction between multiple risk factors must be considered as this could heighten risk, it notes.
For example, someone with an increased risk of infection could also have a disability or be obese, heightening their risk of death once infected.
The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies’ ethnicity subgroup is working to understand why the second wave has had such a disproportionate impact on South Asian groups.
The report sets out work the Government has done to reduce disparities, including working with dozens of ethnic minority news outlets, local faith groups and health providers, commissioning research and setting up a unit to myth bust disinformation about the vaccine.
It has also introduced community-led testing pilots at places of worship, and included transportation workers in mass testing pilots now being rolled out more widely.
It said the findings strengthen the argument that ethnic minorities should not be considered a single group that faces similar risk factors.
The RDU also interviewed 12 people from different ethnic minority backgrounds over eight weeks, who said that communications tended to frame them as one homogenous group, which was “stigmatising”.
Most participants also said they had experienced instances where they felt avoided, blamed or berated about their lifestyles and alleged non-adherence to the rules.
The report notes that Government communications will reflect these findings and ensure ethnic minorities are not stigmatised by being referred to as a single group in public health messaging.
Kemi Badenoch said: “Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, this Government has done everything it can to protect everyone in this country.
“The latest data shows that this is not a one-size-fits-all situation. Outcomes have improved for some ethnic minority groups since the first wave, but we know some communities are still particularly vulnerable. Our response will continue to be driven by the latest evidence and data and targeted at those who are most at risk.
“There is light at the end of the tunnel and, as the vaccine rollout continues, I urge everyone who is offered one to take the opportunity, to protect themselves, their family, and their community.”
The Government will continue to tailor its public health communications, monitor uptake of the vaccine and, if necessary, take steps to address barriers.
Professor Krishnan Bhaskaran, professor of statistical epidemiology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said: “This report brings together a range of work being done to monitor and tackle ethnic disparities that have emerged during the pandemic, and outlines important progress made to date.
“In the coming months, it will be vital to continue and extend this work to address continuing raised risks of poor Covid-19 outcomes in some ethnic minority groups, and emerging evidence of ethnic differences in vaccine uptake.”
Dr Habib Naqvi, director of the NHS Race and Health Observatory, said more support is needed to ensure information reaches the most vulnerable.
He added: “Any renewed effort by the Government to resource and invest in reaching diverse communities, to build trust and increase confidence in the vaccine programme, is welcomed by the Observatory.
“We cannot continue to lose frontline health and social care staff, nor overlook the fact that people from ethnic minority backgrounds face poorer health outcomes, both current and historic, exacerbated by the pandemic.”