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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Aamna Mohdin Community affairs correspondent

Minorities in UK no longer at much higher risk of dying from Covid

Dr Sele Mousa, a GP in Ebbw Vale and promoter of the vaccine in black and minority ethnic communities, receiving his second dose of Covid-19 vaccine in Newbridge, Wales, February 2021
Dr Sele Mousa, a GP in Ebbw Vale and promoter of the vaccine in black and minority ethnic communities, receiving his second dose of Covid-19 vaccine in Newbridge, Wales, February 2021. Photograph: Huw Fairclough/Getty Images

People from minority ethnic backgrounds no longer have a significantly higher risk of death from Covid-19 than white Britons, for the first time in the pandemic.

Figures from the Office of National Statistics (ONS) show rates of deaths involving Covid-19 are now substantially lower for all ethnic groups compared with earlier in the pandemic.

Experts suggest this could be down to changes in exposure to the virus, vaccination, levels of natural immunity, and the severity of Covid variants.

During the first and second wave of the pandemic, between January 2020 and January 2021, minority ethnic groups had a significantly higher Covid-19 mortality rate than white Britons.

“In the first wave and the second wave, the differences in mortality were largely due to social demographic factors. The main reason for the differences was differences in the risk of infection,” said Vahé Nafilyan, a senior statistician at the ONS.

During the period of successive lockdowns, people from minority ethnic backgrounds were more likely to be exposed to the virus as they were more likely to be key workers or live in multi-generational households. Covid mortality rates were highest for Bangladeshi, Pakistani, black African, and black Caribbean groups, ONS figures show.

Deaths from Covid decreased by the third and fourth waves, known as the Alpha and Delta waves, but ethnic disparities remained.

“The Delta wave coincided with the rollout of the vaccination campaign, where the uptake of vaccine was much lower in some groups, such as the black Caribbean and black African groups, compared to the white British group,” Nafilyan said. “One of our studies found that to a large extent these differences in vaccinations explained the differences in mortality.”

Research showed that the Omicron variant caused less severe disease than Delta.

“In addition to that, you’ve got the fact that more and more people have got immunity because they’ve been infected previously. So what hasn’t changed in the Omicron period is the gap in vaccination uptake. It has reduced slightly between groups, but it’s still there,” Nafilyan said. “You would expect a group that is less vaccinated to have the highest mortality rates, and what we find is it’s not the case. So why is that? We can’t say for sure from the data.”

He added: “I don’t think we can do anything but speculate, but I think it’s good news because the rate of death has gone down substantially.” He said further research was needed to look into the level of immunity in different groups, and see whether groups with lower vaccination levels had higher level of infection

Kit Yates, the director of the Centre for Mathematical Biology at the University of Bath, said it was unclear what driving factors were behind the latest figures. “My best guess would be that there were disparities in terms of exposure levels for different ethnic groups earlier on in the pandemic, when we were actively trying to control transmission. I suspect that these have now largely dissipated given the unmitigated spread situation in which we have found ourselves for the last year or so.”

He said another possibility was that the impact of vaccines was diminishing. “We know that there are disparities in vaccine uptake by ethnic groups. However, combination of vaccine protection waning and the majority of people now being over a year out from their last vaccine may have levelled that playing field.”

Dr Habib Naqvi, chief executive of the NHS Race and Health Observatory, said: “Whilst these are estimated figures that need to be explored further, taken at face value, they indicate how much of an impact COVID-19 has had on Black, Asian and ethnic minority communities. The disproportionate impact with regard to severe illness, hospital admissions and mortality rate among diverse communities has been significant, and has resurfaced the critical importance for tackling the root causes of long-standing ethnic and racial inequalities in health, across our population. These inequalities remain relevant today and must be tackled head-on.”

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