Ethnic minority medics are being 'whitewashed' out of celebrations of the NHS

As the coronavirus pandemic has spiralled in the last few weeks, we are all utterly indebted to the incredible, tireless work that NHS staff are doing to save as many lives as possible.

Working in impossible situations over unbearably long hours, often without adequate protective equipment, the doctors, nurses and frontline staff are awe-inspiring and braver than most of us can comprehend.

In response, the general public are, rightly, showing their appreciation for NHS staff wherever they can. The #ClapForCarers events over the last two weeks have been incredibly touching and moved plenty of us to tears.

But, while we are thanking medics for their selfless contributions, it is vital that ethnic minority NHS staff are not forgotten.

Following the nationwide #ClapForCarers, it was noted by a number of doctors and campaigners online that black, Asian and minority ethnic staff were conspicuously absent from the majority of the mainstream media coverage.

‘The NHS would not exist or function at ANY level, at any point in its history, without the labour of its black and brown staff,’ wrote one on Twitter who noticed the absence.

Another tweet read: ‘I saw a public health video of 20 NHS medical professionals begging everyone to wash hands, stay home, protect NHS, save lives – but everyone featured was white! Not realistic, not true, not fair.’

Many montage images shown on front pages of papers and video clips of NHS staff shown across broadcast news platforms, depicted an overwhelming majority of white doctors, nurses and frontline staff. Which lead some minority staff members to question why they were being ‘whitewashed’ out of the picture.

Comedian Gina Yashere posted a video on Twitter in which she asked why minority medics weren’t being shown in news items thanking NHS staff.

‘Just like in other fields of work – such as media and the arts – the medical contributions of BAME communities are being downplayed, despite being some of the most talented and skilled doctors in the country,’ Dr Asif tells

‘This does make me feel underappreciated and, at times, rather demoralised. We are providing a valuable public service in what ought to be a meritocracy, but the pictures in the news are dominated by middle class, middle aged, usually male, white doctors.

‘Seeing the NHS being whitewashed like this, at at time when it draws so much of its workforce from diverse BAME backgrounds, not only makes me feel disappointed but also reminds me that there may be an element of institutional racism right through the spine of the NHS – especially when it comes to the upper echelons.’

To be clear, the NHS workforce is majority white. But 10% of the staff are Asian, around 6% are black, around 2% are mixed and another 2% are recorded as ‘other’. That is at least 20% of staff who are non-white – a significant proportion that certainly doesn’t deserve to be erased from the picture.

We will likely rely on minority medics even more in the future, too. BAME students make up 40% of medical undergraduates, nearly double the 22% in universities overall.

‘It is very important to highlight the contribution of BAME people in medicine as now is a time to increase the workforce,’ says Dr Asif. ‘We have seen record numbers of medical students, as well as retired doctors join the workforce in the midst of the pandemic.

‘We can inspire the next generation of youngsters to become doctors, regardless of their background, instead of having to temporarily increase the workforce through returning retirees.

‘By having just white faces in the media, we risk alienating thousands of potential new young doctors who are watching the news.’

The other concerning effect of this ‘whitewashing’ is the impact it will have on BAME staff already giving their all to try to fight this pandemic.

A lack of recognition could be a serious dent in the morale and mental wellbeing of a workforce that is being pushed to the limit.

The first four British doctors to die of coronavirus were all Muslim men: Adil El Tayar, Alfa Sa’adu, Habib Zaidi and Amged el-Hawrani.

The medics had ancestory in regions including Africa, Asia and the Middle East. They all died while on the front line, battling to save others from the deadly virus that took their lives.

And black NHS healthcare assistant Thomas Harvey died from coronavirus on Sunday after treating sick patients with only gloves for protection. His family say they feel completely ‘let down’.

Five fatalities in minority NHS staff seems worryingly disproportionate to the percentage of total BAME workforce. It reinforces just how important it is to ensure that public appreciation is inclusive, and accurately reflects the contribution of minority medics.

The NHS was built on the contributions of immigrant staff. In its inception after the war, Britain recruited for nurses in Malaysia, Mauritius, the Caribbean and elsewhere in the empire.

Last year, now health secretary Matt Hancock even said that Britain needs a ‘new Windrush generation’, to solve the staffing problems in the NHS, just as they did in the 1950s.

But, despite this historic dependency on BAME staff, racism is still prevalent throughout the institution.

The number of BAME staff reporting bullying, harassment or abuse from patients, relatives or the public rose from 29.1% in 2016 to 29.8% in 2019.

To be sidelined in public recognition during an unprecedented public health crisis must feel like a particularly sharp slap in the face for many minority members of staff.

Dr Catherine Omotayo says that this whitewashed depiction of the NHS is not a new phenomenon.

‘We saw this lack of visible diversity years ago, which is why many black medical societies have been formed on social media to represent us,’ Catherine tells ‘Many pictures publicised on mainstream media do not show the beautiful colours I see when I physically enter the hospital or GP surgeries.’

She says it can definitely bring morale down among BAME staff, but she wants to be an inspiration for others.

‘Growing up, I never had any representation or black inspiration, the fact that I can be that for someone, encourages me to be the best version of myself each day at work.’

Catherine and her colleagues decided to make a lighthearted video for social media, showcasing the beautiful diversity within the NHS and putting a spotlight on black female medical staff.

‘It is important to recognise the real NHS staff,’ says Catherine. ‘We are all equally important and all work hard in our daily jobs to provide a high standard of service.

‘We deserve to be appreciated as much as our other colleagues. The NHS is a team, we are part of it too, we have a voice and I feel blessed to be able to use it.’

This is a global crisis that should transcend issues of race.

But the painful, lasting impacts of racial discrimination can’t be simply pushed aside by the people who live through them every day – no matter the circumstances.

It’s up to all of us to recognise everyone when we show our appreciation for the NHS, and to push back where we see certain sections of society being erased.

We will only get through this if we treat everybody with equal respect, recognition and understanding.

The State of Racism

This series is an in-depth look at racism in the UK in 2020.

We aim to look at how, where and why racist attitudes and biases impact people of colour from all walks of life.

It’s vital to improve the language we have to talk about racism and start the difficult conversations about inequality.

We want to hear from you – if you have a personal story or experience of racism that you would like to share get in touch: [email protected]

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