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Heart Of A Nation : The exhibition celebrating migrants contribution to the NHS

Heart of a Nation is an online exhibition by the Migration Museum which puts  a spotlight on the sacrifices migrants have had to go through to make the NHS the institution it is today.

The exhibition main goal is to highlight the very important role migrants have played

in establishing the NHS from its birth to this day. According to the exhibition, approximately 25% of NHS workers are either non-British or from an ethnic minority background. This number goes up to almost 50% for doctors.

The exhibition also acknowledges migrant NHS workers efforts on the frontline to fight the COVID pandemic, often at the cost of losing their lives, especially due to the lack of well needed PPE. One of those workers who paid the price of putting themselves on the frontline despite the risks the pandemic caused is 28 year-old Black nurse Mary Agyapong, who was 8 months pregnant when she caught the virus at her workplace due to lack of protection and died following delivering her baby via emergency c-section.


When it was first set up, the NHS heavily relied on workers from its former colonies who were already educated to a British standard and familiar with British culture. The 1948 British Nationality Act made it even easier for anyone coming from Britain’s former colonies to settle and work in the UK , attracting medical workers by the thousands.


NHS migrant workers come from over 200 countries spread out across six continents. Whilst Europe remains the main contributor to the NHS workforce, Africa comes third after Asia with 27, 612 workers coming from the continent. Nigeria is the African country where most of the workers come from with 8,567 people in the NHS identifying themselves as Nigerians.

The NHS is still predominantly White (White staff accounts for 74% of total NHS workforce) with Black / Black British workers only accounting for 6% of the total NHS workforce.

Carol Sydney © Evewright Arts Foundation. All Rights Reserved


Upon arrival in the UK, some migrant workers experienced a cultural shock despite being familiar to some aspects British culture - from seeing white people doing low level jobs for the first time to having to eat wee smelling steak and kidney pies. Others faced training barriers due to their nationality/origin as well as racism from patients.

Dr Neslyn Watson-Druée, originally from Jamaica, recalls how she was discouraged from training to become a health visitor because “health visiting wasn’t for black girls” while Allyson Williams MBE, from Trinidad, experienced racism first hand from patients who wouldn’t let her touch them because her black would rub off on them.


One final key question the exhibition asks  is “ How can the NHS tackle racism?”

Yvonne Coghill - who arrived in the UK in the 60s from Guyana and is now Director of the NHS England Workforce Race Equality Standard programme - discusses how on the one hand, the NHS welcomes workers from all over the world but on the other hands fails to protect them from being discriminated against once they start working within the NHS. She talks about how the Workforce Race Equality Standard was set up in 2015 to tackle this in order to look more closely at the difference between the experience of White NHS staff and the experience of Black and Ethnic minority staff. The long term goal is to improve NHS work culture so everyone regardless of their race or country of origin has a positive working experience within the NHS.

The exhibition Heart of A Nation by the Migration Museum can be visited online for free at

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