published on
March 11, 2022

Celebrating Black Nurses’ Impact on UK Healthcare

posted on

After WWII, the UK was desperate for new workers.   

Hundreds of people from West India arrived on HMS Windrush on 22nd June 1948, invited by the government to support the UK’s labour pool.

Many of the opportunities open to West Indian immigrants were considered menial or hard labour jobs - but this is what kept the economy from failing.

In the same year, the UK National Health Service was founded on 5 July by health secretary Aneurin Bevan.

It was the first health service of its kind, and was revolutionary. 

Healthcare was no longer a luxury few could afford.  

The NHS was built by Black nurses

A loyal and dedicated workforce kept the NHS a success in its early years, and continues to do so now. 

This is where the Windrush Generation’s presence and contribution was truly felt - at the heart of healthcare.

If you are of West Indian heritage in the UK, you are likely to have at least one direct connection to the first wave of immigrants to arrive here in 1948. 

Many of the NHS’s successes can be credited to those first West Indian migrants.

One of these nurses was Pearly Morgan. 

At age 22, Ms Morgan travelled from her home country of Jamaica to work as an auxiliary nurse at Springfield Psychiatric Hospital in Crumpsall. 

Ms Morgan then went on to specialise in midwifery and later became a Senior Sister at St. Mary’s Hospital in Manchester. 

Throughout her career, she found it was not uncommon to experience racism, prejudice and discrimination in her work environment.  

This racial discrimination has managed to linger in the background of the NHS from its inception.

Racism in healthcare today

Today, there’s still increased likelihood of BAME health professionals having disciplinary procedures taken out, grievances and limited career progression. 

The NHS is the single largest employer of people with a Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) background, yet BAME health professionals are less likely to be promoted to senior or board positions. 

This was exposed in The Snowy Peaks of the NHS, a 2014 study that made this common knowledge known to the wider public.

The Nursing Times and Unison’s 2019 survey on diversity revealed two-thirds of nurses have observed racial discrimination or disadvantage that affected someone else, and nearly half have been the target of it themselves.

In 40% of cases, this involved racist behaviour by a patient or member of the public – the most common reason identified.

One respondent said: “The main areas of racism that I have witnessed are from patients and their families.”

Another said: “I feel since Brexit I am receiving a lot more racial abuse from patients. I have been called the ‘N’ word one too many times and told to go back to Africa.”

Attempts at professional equality in healthcare

There have been several legislative attempts to challenge the status quo throughout the NHS’s history. 

The Equality Act of 2010 was designed to ban all types of discrimination within the workplace, in a more comprehensive manner compared to previous legislation. 

However, the NHS’s Equality and Diverse Council, and the more recent WRES, are examples of targeted attempts to combat racial discrimination within the NHS. 

WRES, the Workforce Race Equality Standard is a requirement all NHS and social care employers need to abide by to ensure fair treatment for all employees.

NHS and social care providers are now expected to show the progress made for workplace equality and as of 2017, healthcare providers are required to publish this data.

Fortunately, there have been reported trends of improvement in workplace equality, such as equal likelihood in BME staff’s access to non-mandatory learning, according to the 2019 WRES data for social care. 

However, the CQC admits there’s still plenty of work to do in other areas, such as ensuring BME representation at senior levels and reducing the gap in bullying and harassment.

Racism’s impact on your career

We know there have been steps made to shatter this glass ceiling. But have any of these measures actually worked for you?

Have you ever experienced seeing your colleagues progress, while your career fell behind?

Have you ever had a colleague who you deemed less capable than yourself get a promotion over you?

Have you ever challenged this?

You may have decided that despite this unfair treatment, it wasn’t worth the risk of “shaking the table” and risking your job security.

RGN Rosie Purves, who travelled from Trinidad to work as a nurse in 1960s England is one of the early campaigners against racism in the NHS.

Purves was exposed to racial abuse whilst she worked in a children’s ward, while caring for a child with cystic fibrosis. The child’s mother requested her child was moved, as she believed “black people shouldn’t be in hospital”. 

Instead of the Trust protecting their nurse, the NHS granted the mother’s wishes and moved the child to a different ward.

Purves successfully sued her Trust for not supporting her in the face of racial discrimination and was awarded £20,000 in 2004

Nurses like RGN Purves who took a stand against racism and put accountability on her workplace helped set the foundation for legislation such as WRES to exist.

Fighting for equality today

Despite government and grass-roots efforts to level the playing field, the NHS and social care still have a lot of catching up to do. 

Brexit is a serious threat to the future of international BME health professionals in health and social care.

A bill to limit ‘unskilled’ workers’ migration to the UK post-Brexit recently passed in the House of Commons will certainly impact the care sector. Though, increased national awareness and support for carers during the coronavirus pandemic leaves hope this bill will be changed or scrapped. 

Also, the next generation going into nursing is more politically aware and active than ever. With increased knowledge comes demand for change, as seen in Black Lives Matter protests that have spread from the US to the UK the past two weeks. 

This action raises hope for the improvement of inclusiveness in daily life, including at work and in healthcare. 

But what about now?

Resources for Black nurses and carers

There are steps you can take in your working environment that can drive forward change.

Holding your employer accountable for discriminatory behaviour and treating your colleagues with respect are ways to make your voice heard. 

What you can do

  • Don’t suffer in silence – if you think it might be racism it probably is – talk to trusted colleagues, your Florence account manager, or your union branch about what’s been happening.
  • Challenge anything that you experience or witness that makes you feel uncomfortable, if you feel able, and raise incidents to a manager (eg abusive language, name calling, ‘banter’/’jokes’, mimicry etc).
  • Talk to your workplace about organising training or workshops on how best to tackle racism.
  • Be part of the conversation about racism if you feel able – listen to others or tell your own story.
  • Know your rights - find out what legal steps you can take here.

List adapted from Unison’s Race for Equality resources - find further support from Unison here.

You can also look at networking, development and support resources for BME professionals in healthcare:

Talk to us

Your Florence team is here to support you, and our incident management team will take any reports of racism extremely seriously. If you have experienced discrimination due to your race while working at a Florence care home, please reach out to your account manager to report it, or email directly to raise an incident.

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