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Caring for the Nation: The minority ethnic contribution to nursing and midwifery


Foreword from Ruth May, Chief Nursing Officer for England, and Trevor Sterling, Chair of the MARY SEACOLE TRUST

Welcome to this celebration of the contribution that nurses and midwives from minority ethnic backgrounds have made to the NHS. When the World Health Organization designated 2020 the International Year of the Nurse and the Midwife, no one could have predicted just how much the world would demand of all its nurses and midwives as we confront the terrible impact of a global pandemic.

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From Mary Seacole and Florence Nightingale in the 19th century, nurses and midwives have been there during every crisis, war and disaster to provide essential care for those who suffer during history’s traumatic events. The Covid-19 pandemic is no exception. Frontline staff have put their own lives at risk daily to care for others, often having to separate from loved ones. This is true of nurses and midwives from all ethnic communities, even when this devastating virus seems to take its toll on some groups more than others.

One in five of our nurses, midwives and health visitors is from a minority ethnic background and they are more likely than others to choose nursing as a career. The NHS simply could not exist without them. And yet, 2020 also highlighted the inequalities that minority ethnic people face throughout society, including in the health service where they are disproportionately under-represented in senior roles. Improving equality in the NHS work force is a key element of the organisation’s long-term plan and while change is happening, it is not happening fast enough.

NHS England and NHS Improvement, and the Mary Seacole Trust, welcome the WHO’s decision to extend the Year of the Nurse and the Midwife into the International Year of the Health and Care Worker 2021. We are proud to work together on this timely project giving individual nurses from minority ethnic backgrounds the opportunity to tell their story. Their honesty is inspiring as they bear witness to the real experience of being a minority ethnic nurse working in the health service today.

We would like to thank all those who have taken part. While they highlight the barriers nurses of colour may face, they also provide a message of hope and humanity with clear pointers towards what needs to be done. Like Mary Seacole, these nurses do not allow the racism they encounter to stand between them and their goal – to make a difference to people who need their expertise, their dedication and their care.


In May 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced that 2020 would be dedicated to nurses and midwives, providing a once in a generation opportunity to showcase these essential professions. This theme also coincided with the 200th anniversary of the birth of Florence Nightingale.

Nurses and midwives are a critical part of the healthcare workforce globally, and have been for many decades. In the UK, the global nursing and midwifery workforce existed well before the inception of the National Health Service (NHS) in 1948.

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At the time of the NHS’s creation there was a shortage of approximately 48,000 nurses. 1948 also saw the arrival of the HMT Empire Windrush from the Caribbean, marking the start in earnest of a new, multicultural era.

Many of those arriving as part of the Windrush generation filled essential roles in the British workforce, including within the NHS. The NHS, its nurses and its midwives were, and remain to this day, a beacon of diversity. 

Across the National Health Service (NHS) in England today, almost one in every four nurses and midwives are from an ethnic minority background. Yet, many of these nurses and midwives face challenges in the workplace and often remain significantly underrepresented in the most senior jobs.

In early 2020, we set out on a project to capture the immense contribution of ethnic minority nurses and midwives in the English healthcare system – from the time of Mary Seacole to the present. Our initial ambition was to produce a book chronicling this contribution – and then the Coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic shook the world.

We had to adapt our approach to this project and instead have captured both historical insight as well as a series of conversations that tell the stories of why people from across the world chose to work as nurses and midwives in our healthcare system.

The narratives are from people who may themselves have come to this country or whose relatives from earlier generations came here. They are all part of our nursing and midwifery lineage, an integral and valued part of our society.

This project will remain ‘live’ as there are many nursing and midwifery stories yet to be lived and told. And so our intention is to add lived experiences to this educational resource over time, with the Mary Seacole Trust being the guardian of this archive.


Dr Habib Naqvi MBE
Trustee, Mary Seacole Trust

Dr David Ashton
Project researcher



2020 was designated by the WHO as the International Year of the Nurse and Midwife. Following the global coronavirus pandemic in 2020, WHO extended the year into 2021 as the International Year of the Health and Care Worker.

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