'Racial abuse of NHS staff is completely unacceptable' - secretary of state for health

Published: 07 November 2019 EDI

In a letter sent to all National Health Service employees, the secretary of state for health, Matt Hancock, has called on senior managers to support staff who are racially abused by patients or visitors.

"I have seen for myself racist abuse of staff, on night shifts in hospitals. Such racism is awful, and something that no staff member should have to endure," he says in the letter.

"Especially troubling is the feeling among some staff that they need to accept this humiliation because they can’t be sure they will be backed up if they challenge it.

"So I want to send a clear message, from the very top of our health and care system, with the strong support of the entire national leadership of the NHS: this sort of abuse is unacceptable and we will not tolerate it."

Matt Hancock continues, "If you face abuse, do not accept it. If you see a colleague being abused, do not ignore it. If you know of an employee facing this, do not stand for it. This government takes a zero-tolerance approach to dealing with racist abuse whenever it arises. Things should be no different in our NHS."

The issue of abuse and patients making comments about race or ethnicity has coincidentally been a recent topic of debate on the @SCoRMembers Twitter account, with members discussing how to deal with patients who either insist on seeing a white healthcare professional, or who make anti-Semitic or other racist comments.

Quoting the testimony of Radhakrishna Shanbhag, a doctor who has spoken out recently about the abuse he has received during 20 years working for the NHS, the health minister says that if a patient asks to be treated by a white doctor (or any other member of staff), "the answer is 'no'."

"We all need to act to ensure racism in our NHS is eradicated. It is not the responsibility of those who suffer racist abuse to challenge it alone," Matt Hancock continued.

The letter makes it clear that employers must take responsibility and support staff who are abused: "To those of you in senior management positions within trusts, I would be grateful if you would reiterate to your hard-working and dedicated staff that we consider the racial abuse of NHS staff to be completely unacceptable.

"I therefore expect that all appropriate steps are taken by organisations to ensure their staff know they can come to a workplace that is free from abuse and harassment. It must be clear to everyone who works for the NHS have that they have the full support of the government and NHS in tackling racism towards staff."

Peter Higgs, the Society's national equalities officer, welcomed the minister's letter. "If any members of the Society require support at work because of racial abuse, please speak to your workplace rep, regional officer, or contact Equalise.  

Letter from Matt Hancock