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NHSE is ‘pussyfooting around’ race strategy amid ‘wokery media storm’, says lead

Published on: 28 Oct 2021

NHS England is ‘pussyfooting’ around the release of a new workforce race equality strategy amid a “media storm around ‘wokery’,” the lead of the programme has said.

A consultation on the development of a long-term workforce race equality strategy was launched by NHSE in August and is expected to be published this month.

However, Professor Anton Emmanuel, who leads the organisation’s workforce race equality standard programme, and also works as a consultant gastroenterologist at University College London Hospitals Foundation Trust, suggested at a conference that recent media coverage had made NHSE officials hesitant to release it.

Speaking about the WRES programme’s work so far, he said the “monolithic presentation” of data to trusts, and then NHSE expecting them to make the necessary improvements, “may have been the admirable option, but it hasn’t worked”.

Professor Emmanuel added: “That presentation of data, allied to [the] presentation of training resources, doesn’t change the system. What’s messed up, and what keeps people in their place, is the system.

“It’s not by accident. This is the system playing out.”

On the new long-term NHS workforce race equality strategy, he said: “There’s a bit of pussyfooting around it in the wake of the media storm around ‘wokery’ that came out last month…

“But the idea is that, if you are a leader of an organisation and you say, ‘here’s where my data is most challenging nationally, here’s a strategy that allies to that, to create a civility culture or to create a recruitment process, or to do something around bullying and harassment,’ here are the evidence-based things that can be done for that.”

Professor Emmanuel also said in relation to the strategy that “we need some courage from our leaders at NHS England”.

An NHSE spokesman has since told HSJ that Professor Emmanuel’s statement was “wrong” and the strategy is under development. 

He was speaking at a conference held by the British Association of Physicians of Indian Origin in Birmingham last week, which was celebrating its 25th anniversary.

He said better use of data segmented by areas such as gender, workforce type, and race and ethnicity, as well as highlighting specific areas for improvement, could improve outcomes. New data on these issues was due to be sent to trusts “imminently,” he said.

Professor Emmanuel said: “If you really believe there is a way of making a difference, and you believe that leaders want to be accountable for their actions, we as [ethnic minority] people, I’m half-African, half-Asian, I have to believe that there are leaders who want to do that.”

He also said NHSE had “made good headway” in relation to how the Care Quality Commission approaches race equality at trust level. He added that the regulator could now use WRES data to inform its inspections, while providers that are performing poorly on it may be the subject of an investigation.

Some recent national coverage has criticised the work of organisations, including the public sector, being undertaken to try to improve diversity and inclusion.

The Mail on Sunday ran a story last month which highlighted that the salary of NHSE’s chief people officer Prerana Issar, referred to as a “diversity tsar”, was more than that of then-chief executive Lord Simon Stevens. Amanda Pritchard succeeded him in July, while Ms Issar was appointed two years ago.

Also last month, the Mail published an article about a June 2020 blog post by Aishnine Benjamin, who was the Nursing and Midwifery Council’s equality, diversity and inclusion lead at the time, titled ‘Dear white people in the UK’. It was written on her personal blog before being shared alongside others on the NHS Leadership Academy’s website.

It gave six tips for white people, which included not being “defensive,” not saying “‘I’m not political’ to excuse yourself from the conversation,” and “work on [one’s own] empathy”. It also recommended two literary works, one being a short essay on “white privilege” and the other being a book on “white fragility”.

Ms Benjamin, who is now the British Medical Association’s head of equality, inclusion and culture, said in an updated post in September: “I honestly don’t know why the media has picked this up (over a year later).

“The original blog, like this one, is not policy or guidance. It [was] a snapshot of a moment in time that reflects the environment at that point in time.”

Some politicians and commentators have also been criticising what they have described as “wokery”.

According to the Daily Telegraph, the health and social care secretary Sajid Javid told a meeting of MPs that he would be “watchful for any waste or wokery” in the NHS.

An NHS spokesman told HSJ that Professsor Emmanuel’s assertion was ”wrong, as actually, we are still developing the race equality strategy which will help tackle the racial discrimination that many of our staff face.”

He added: “It will be published as soon as it is ready”.

Updated at 8.30pm on 28 October to include a further comment provided by NHS England and a further quote from the event. The update also clarifies that the Mail on Sunday story referred to Lord Stevens’ salary for 2019-20 when compared with Ms Issar’s