Former minister for disabled people Esther McVey has angered campaigners after an “ill-informed and offensive” demand that the government must never order another lockdown, despite the measure probably saving tens of thousands of disabled people’s lives during the pandemic.
McVey, who is also a former work and pensions secretary, described the COVID-19 lockdowns as “one of the most idiotic policies ever to have occurred and something we must never ever do again”.
The Office for National Statistics repeatedly found that nearly 60 per cent of those who died Covid-related deaths during the pandemic were disabled people, and most academic studies have found that lockdowns were successful in reducing the spread of the virus and the number of deaths.
Disabled people’s organisations this week expressed their alarm at the comments, which were made at this week’s Conservative party conference in Birmingham.
McVey (pictured), who is still an MP but also works as a presenter for the right-wing news channel GB News, was speaking at a fringe meeting organised by the Centre for Social Justice.
She told the meeting: “Who on earth thought that closing the economy and the country down for two years, pay people to stay at home, and print money at will, and think that we could get away with it?
“Who thought that could be damage-free? It couldn’t be and it wasn’t.”
She added: “Some of us tried to warn continuous lockdowns would have consequences but no-one at the time really wanted to listen.”
She said later in the meeting that the lockdowns were “awful” but that a Labour government would have “done it worse”.
Disability News Service (DNS) emailed McVey’s office after the meeting to ask if she believed that the lives of many disabled people would in the future have to be sacrificed for the sake of economic growth if there was another life-threatening pandemic.
She had not responded by noon today (Thursday).
But Fazilet Hadi, head of policy for Disability Rights UK, told DNS: “These comments are ill-informed, unfeeling and offensive.
“Lockdowns prevented people dying and arguably the first one should have started earlier in March 2020.
“There are many valid criticisms that could have been made of the government’s response to the COVID-19 crisis, including reducing the Care Act rights of disabled people, discharging people with Covid into care homes, delays in providing care workers with personal protective equipment and testing, insufficient regard to reasonable adjustments, and a failure to communicate vital healthcare messages in British Sign Language and other alternative formats.
“Yet, as a former minister for disabled people, none of these criticisms were made.
“The Covid inquiry started to look at the government’s pre-pandemic planning earlier this week and whilst I’m sure it will find much to criticise, I doubt the proposed use of lockdowns will be challenged.”
Another disabled people’s organisation, Buckinghamshire Disability Service (BuDS), which has played a key role in highlighting the continuing seriousness of the Covid pandemic and its impact on disabled people, was also critical of McVey’s comments.
In a statement, BuDS said: “Ideology must not take priority over facts.
“The lockdowns in 2020 and 2021 saved hundreds of thousands of lives by reducing the spread of a deadly virus for which [before the end of 2020] there was no effective vaccine.
“Lockdowns do have negative impacts, but they don’t kill people or cause long-term illness and disability.
“We completely reject Ester McVey’s view that lockdowns can never be repeated.
“If Covid mutates into an even more deadly form, we could not sit idly and watch it kill hundreds of thousands of people.”
BuDS said it also rejected the way that some politicians describe all public health precautions against Covid as “lockdowns”, adding: “Requiring people to wear face masks in high-risk places, or requiring buildings to have air filtering or purification, is not a ‘lockdown’.
“They are sensible public health precautions used by numerous other European nations whose economy has not been damaged by them.
“Allowing Covid to run riot now is the surest way of making it necessary for lockdowns in the future.”
Andrew Clark, chair of BuDS, added: “This idea that lockdowns – particularly the short lockdowns we had in England – are deeply damaging to people and worse than catching the virus is simply a fatuous excuse.”
But one disabled Conservative councillor at the conference told DNS that she supported McVey’s position.
Cllr Joanne Howey, a member of the Conservative group on Durham County Council, said she was clinically vulnerable to Covid herself – and had caught the virus despite two injections – but still argued against any future lockdowns.
She said: “I have seen the mental impact of lockdown on children. A full lockdown is the worst place we could go.”
She said the government should “give people that choice”.
She said: “We give them that choice if they want to stay at home. I am with Esther on that one.
“I just think we should be able to make our own choices.
“I have had calls from people who are really, really mentally ill now because they don’t know how to mix in society anymore.
“It’s not because I want to go out and kill people, it’s because I worry about mental health.”
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