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Independent inquiry to investigate ‘unequal impacts’ of COVID-19 pandemic

Let’s Be Heard

The Scottish COVID-19 Inquiry, Let’s Be Heard, invites anyone who was in Scotland between 1 January 2020 to 31 December 2022 to submit their pandemic experiences by 31 October 2023.

‘The Inquiry is investigating how the handling of the pandemic impacted people, including whether there were any unequal impacts,’ reads a statement on its website. ‘To do this, the Inquiry needs to hear from as many different people as possible.’

You can submit your experience online, or through paper copies - available at GPs, pharmacies, libraries and other community buildings across Scotland.

Irish COVID-19 mortality rates in Scotland

In a May 2023 edition of the Irish Voice, Call It Out’s Danny Boyle–Policy Officer for BEMIS Scotland–highlighted some of the unequal impacts COVID-19 had on the Irish community in Scotland.

Danny’s article, reproduced below with permission from The Irish Voice, touched on a number of racial matters concerning the Irish diaspora in Scotland. This included the unfortunate statistic which placed Irish deaths (as a result of COVID-19) top among ethnic minorities in Scotland.

Remember, you have until 31 October to submit your experience and help the inquiry investigate root causes of unequal impacts during COVID-19. In turn, potential safeguards may emerge to protect the Irish community in any future pandemics.

Read Danny’s full article below.

This article is dedicated to the 199 Irish deaths, their friends and families, that occurred in Scotland between March and June 2020 during the lockdown of the covid 19 pandemic. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam.

Racism and Racial Inequality in Scotland is more than a Black and White issue – The case of the Irish Covid Mortality Rates

On Sunday the 23rd of April a draft letter written by Dianne Abbott MP was published in the Sunday Observer. The letter stated that while redheads, Jews, Irish people and Travelers face prejudice they have not and do not face racism.

The letter suggested that racism can only occur on the grounds of colour and as such was a Black / White issue. Diane Abbott MP almost immediately retracted the letter via a social media statement and outlined that it had been sent in error. In addition, Ms. Abbott clarified that she does not indeed hold such a belief and that Jewish, Irish and Traveler people have in fact faced racism and continue to do so in certain settings.

This piece is not a critique of Dianne Abbotts draft letter or apology. As a high-profile Black woman, she has faced vulgar anti Black racist and misogynistic abuse throughout her career and I have no wish to use this unfortunate situation to focus on her. Those using it as a gotcha moment to destroy her career or brand her a racist are wrong. In fact, she has opened a door for some serious discussion.

In drawing attention to this draft belief Ms. Abbott illuminated a position and opinion that is highly influential in Scotland. The idea that the multi-generational Irish community has not and cannot face racism, either on the street, in the workplace or in institutional decision making. That position is an influential position in some academia and local authority, 3rd sector and national government policy development.

This article provides an example in relation to Covid deaths that illustrates institutional challenges the Irish community experience in recognition and the delivery of public policy.

The covid mortality rate example is not identified as a call for our issues to take precedence over anyone else but to solicit equality, empathy and solidarity with other communities with similar or related experiences.

In the anniversary year of the 1923 Menace of the Irish Race to our Scottish Nation Irish community organisations such as Call it Out, Comhaltas, GAA, Conradh Na Gaelige and others are mobilising to discuss the impact and legacies of the document at their conference in Glasgow University on Tuesday the 23rd of May.

The conference has been funded by BEMIS Scotland as part of our commitment to progressing anti racism and community cohesion in Scotland.

Background to our knowledge

Just prior to lockdown in late February 2020 BEMIS Scotland initiated the Ethnic Minority National Resilience Network. The network was set up in response to the social, economic, health and political responses we had observed developing in other nations.

Based on this rapid learning from countries like Italy where we observed significant impacts on age / mortality rates and spread in population density, we knew that ethnic minority communities in Scotland would have some very specific, and in some cases disproportionate challenges in relation to the health, economic and social impacts of the pandemic.

The network grew over the following weeks, continues to meet quarterly and has 106 member organisations from across Scotland representing diverse ethnic minority communities. Over the following 3 years we developed a significant amount of intelligence on the various impacts of the pandemic on ethnic minority communities and worked with the Scottish Government and other partners to try and mitigate these.

An example of our strategic response was the development of an emergency sustenance small grant scheme. Due to the precarious employment situation of many ethnic minority communities via zero hours contracts and casual work we knew that furlough would not be an option to replace income. In addition, some ethnic minority people are subjected to the immigration designation ‘No Recourse to Public Funds”. In practice this means that they cannot claim any state support.

In the context of a long-term lockdown and pandemic this presented the perfect storm. People and families faced an existential threat in accessing basic requirements. Food, heating, safety. As such with support from the Scottish Government we distributed over £300,000 over 2020/21 to respond to these unique set of circumstances that otherwise would not have been attended to.

In short, BEMIS and the EMNRN were developing intelligence and responses in real time to mitigate complex issues across Scotland.

Irish mortality rate during COVID 19

Our strategic responses continued to evolve to respond to diverse community challenges across Scotland such as digital inequality, vaccination consent, transitioning to remote working, tackling isolation, loneliness and facilitating community cohesion in unprecedented circumstances.

This expertise was recognised when BEMIS CEO Dr. Rami Ousta was invited in June 2020 to represent BEMIS / EMNRN on the “Expert Reference Group on Covid and Ethnicity” (ERG) initiated by the Scottish Government. The ERG was chaired by two independent academics and secretarial support was provided by government officials. Senior officials regularly attended meetings as did the minister for Equality and Older People.

The Scottish Government Expert Reference Group (ERG) was set up to inform the Scottish Government on covid impacts based upon ethnicity and develop recommendations to respond to these.

On the 8th of July 2020 the National Records of Scotland published a report into rates of deaths as a result of covid and other deaths that had occurred in the period 12th March to the 14th of June 2020.

What is clearly identifiable in these figures is that the mortality rate from covid deaths and other deaths within the Irish community as this time was higher than any other ethnic minority group.

The methodology note in the report outlines that these figures were either derived from death registration certificates or 2011 census records. That is to say that either the individual themselves recorded their ethnicity as Irish in the 2011 census OR their family or health professional knowing them deeply had recorded their ethnicity as Irish at their GP or other health setting.

The Irish mortality rate figures caused significant concern for BEMIS from both a health mitigation and social perspective. Our knowledge of the increased mortality risk for the elderly and isolated enhanced this concern. In addition, coming from the Irish community in Glasgow myself, BEMIS were informed in their advocacy of pockets of elderly and isolated Irish and of Irish descent who reside across the city and particularly in areas that traditionally had huge Irish influx in the 60’s,70 and 80’s.

At this time, we were in full lockdown with isolation and loneliness being a considerable threat to mental and physical health alongside increased risk of exposure to vulnerable people going to the shops. All the community’s wellbeing crutches, mass, family dinners, the pub, Celtic matches, cultural events, lunch clubs were not on. From a BEMIS Race Equality and Human Rights policy perspective we had a high mortality rate in a specific ethnic group protected under equalities law in the provision of public services and as such their was a moral and legal obligation to respond this evidence.

On the 13th of July 2020 Ross Greer MSP asked a parliamentary question to the Scottish Government on the concerning covid mortality rates within the Irish community:

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to the findings of the National Records of Scotland that the Irish community has the highest COVID-19 fatality rate of any minority group in Scotland, and whether it plans further analysis to ascertain for what reasons this is the case.

The Scottish Government Minister answered:

We are deeply concerned by reports showing that people from some minority ethnic backgrounds have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19.

In order to improve our understanding of and respond to the risks and impacts, we have established an Expert Group Reference Group (ERG) on COVID-19 and Ethnicity, involving academic and experts, to consider the data and evidence and to challenge, inform and shape the Scottish Government’s future work. This will include how analytical partners across the Scottish Government, National Records of Scotland, Public Health Scotland and the NHS can improve and make the best use of data.

The recent report from National Records of Scotland on COVID-19 deaths by ethnicity, published on 8 July, starts to give us a better understanding. However, as highlighted in its methodology note , due to the degree of inconsistency in how individuals have reported, or have had reported on their behalf, their ethnicity, specifically between the “White Irish” and “White Scottish” categories over time and between datasets, it was not possible to carry out an analysis which would enable robust conclusions to be drawn on COVID-19 related mortality for the White Irish ethnic group.

As the minister’s answer illustrates, the Irish community covid mortality rates were disregarded because of what the Scottish Government considered to be a “degree of inconsistency in how individuals have reported”.

That is to say that the word of the deceased or close relative or health professional presumably following a conversation with their patient was not robust enough evidence. In a 20 years career in communities, equalities and human rights I have never encountered evidence of such a grave nature to be so casually ignored and undermined.

Simultaneously the ERG was approaching its work on the basis that Scotland’s capacity to collect robust health data wasn’t up to standard and as such we must work on the basis that inequalities that have manifested elsewhere in the UK and around the world in relation to increased mortality risk and links to deprivation should be assumed to happen here. In short, while we get our house in order lets assume there’s a big problem.

The Irish community were placed in a catch 22 situation insofar as the data available was to be ignored and the assumption that there’s a big problem wouldn’t apply to them.

Following these events Irish community organisation such as Call it Out, Comhaltas, Conradh na Gaeilge, GAA and Irish

Traveller community reps wrote to the Scottish Government to demand recognition, further interrogation of the evidence and a guarantee that they would be consulted in Scottish Government policy development to mitigate the social, economic and cultural impact of the pandemic. The only further correspondence from the Scottish Government on Irish Covid mortality rates was a short email including a link to a further NRS publication that distanced NRS from their initial report.

As a result, the 199 Irish deaths between May and July 2020 went unrecognised publicly.

  • They did not appear in news paper articles outlining the disproportionate impact on some minorities alongside the Pakistani community.

  • They were not formally recognised by the Scottish Government other than to dismiss their own findings. No recognition or solidarity even in case the figures were correct was expressed.

  • No respect was extended to the individuals or their family who had recorded their ethnicity as Irish. In fact, it was used on the contrary to dismiss out of hand their own self-identification.

  • They were not given any status by the ERG, charged with interrogating the impact on covid and ethnicity, in developing long term recommendations for the future of health and other data collection in Scotland.

  • Despite robust evidence on health, social and anti-Irish racism issues manifesting and increasing during the pandemic the Irish community remain strategically excluded by the Scottish Government in work progressed following the final reports of the ERG. In particular the ongoing work to develop an anti-racist infrastructure in Scotland. The terms of reference explicitly state that so-called “white minorities” are not part of this work.


The reason why the Irish community covid mortality rate could be so easily dismissed reflects the cat that Dianne Abbott MP’s draft letter out the bag. “The Irish can face prejudice but not racism”.

For the state and others it is simply unbelievable that Irish people in Scotland could face structural and institutional racism and that this may be multi-generational and hard wired into Scotland’s decision-making processes. They are white like the Scottish and British so they have faced no social, economic, cultural, educational or employment discrimination on the protected racial grounds of ethnicity or nationality. Certainly not in 2020.

Yet the Irish experience during the early months of the covid pandemic and states response prove this to be false.

Not only was the Irish communities own self-generated evidence, at the point of death, not sufficient they were simultaneously told the states infrastructure for collecting health evidence wasn’t good enough. That the state has the capacity to work on the proviso that other sources of qualitative and quantitative evidence are sufficient but not yours.

In a 20-year career working on issues of community, equalities and human rights alongside multiple racial minority communities protected on the protected legal provisions of colour, nationality ethnic or national origin I have never seen evidence such as the detail I have provided so readily avoided by Government.

On the 23rd of May 2023 Irish community organisations have mobilised to assess the impact and legacies of the 1923 Menace of the Irish Race to our Scottish Nation.

The 1923 report is very explicit that Scottish Catholics are of no concern to the Church and Nation Committee it is the presence of the “alien race of Irish”. The premise of the document considers how best to de-Irish the 250,000 of the Irish Race who have landed in Scotland. It was not until 2001 that Irish ethnicity became an option on the Scottish census form. Between 1923 – 2023 the Irish ethnic population, according to official statistics has dropped from 250,000 to 50,000. Our existence and experiences don’t appear to reflect the official statistics.

Thus, it is a crucial time for the community to mobilise to consider our experience across health, justice, culture, sport and media and celebrate the overwhelmingly positive contribution we have made to Scotland.


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