Boris Johnson ordered that plans to protect disabled people from being disproportionately impacted during the second wave of the pandemic should proceed at a “slower time” than other crucial work, the Covid public inquiry has heard.
Government documents released to the inquiry show that this package of measures was “never fully put into place”, the inquiry heard this week from four national disabled people’s organisations (DPOs).
The direction from the prime minister and Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove was made in November 2020, even though they had known for five months that disabled people were dying in disproportionate numbers.
It is now known that 60 per cent of those who have died from Covid were disabled people.
The decision was made even though Gove declared in October 2020 that “time is running out” for the risks to disabled people and others to be mitigated as the second wave of the pandemic began.
Barrister Danny Friedman – representing Disability Rights UK, Inclusion Scotland, Disability Wales and Disability Action Northern Ireland – was delivering their opening statement to the second module of the Covid inquiry, which focuses on government decisions in the early months of the pandemic
He told the inquiry that government decisions meant “there was no plan for disabled people throughout the first and second waves of the pandemic, and there is still no plan”.
And he described an “abject failure to escalate disability issues to ministerial meetings for months”.
Documents released to the inquiry have revealed that rising Tory star Kemi Badenoch, whose portfolio as minister for equalities did not include disability, was commissioned in June 2020 to conduct a review of the “disparities” in the pandemic impact but that her work “did not examine the impacts on disabled people”.
Friedman also told the inquiry on Tuesday, on behalf of the four DPOs: “None of the key decision-making during the pandemic was informed by the expertise of disabled people.”
He added: “Despite obvious risks to disabled people from the outset, the government did not properly engage with them or their organisations during the pandemic response.”
And he said that the meetings that Justin Tomlinson, the minister for disabled people, had with DPOs were “too little, too late”.
In their written submission to the inquiry, the four DPOs told the inquiry that the government failed to engage with a series of urgent recommendations made by DR UK to Tomlinson and Helen Whately, the social care minister, in a letter sent on 16 March 2020.
These included calls for more stringent protections for care home residents and funding for isolation units in care homes.
The DPO submission highlighted information from previously confidential government documents, which have been released to the inquiry and its core participants.
The DPOs said afterwards that the documents released so far to the inquiry showed that ministers, including Johnson, “chose to delay focussing upon and remedying the impact of the pandemic on disabled people”.
The information released to the inquiry appears to corroborate the reporting of Disability News Service (DNS) in the early months of the pandemic.
DNS revealed repeated concerns through 2020 about the government’s failure to protect disabled people, including delays in publishing crucial guidance for those using direct payments and employing personal assistants, concerns over the right to life-sustaining treatment, disabled people in high-risk groups being unable to obtain personal protective equipment (PPE), and the failure of ministers to engage with DPOs.
DNS later obtained government figures that showed Tomlinson had taken part in just a handful of meetings – mostly online – with “external” organisations during each of the first four months of the pandemic, and just four of these meetings included a DPO.
Kamran Mallick, DR UK’s chief executive, who will be giving his own evidence to the module on Monday (9 October), said after the hearing: “The consequences of Covid touched every disabled person and their family and friends.
“Almost 60 per cent of people who died from Covid were disabled people.
“We found ourselves dismissed and patronised as ‘vulnerable’, we were last in the queue for health care, our social care was removed or reduced, our rights were restricted and our reasonable adjustments were denied.
“Disabled people were left without food, were forced to receive support from carers without PPE or testing, were compelled to give up work, were denied assistance on public transport and were harassed for legitimately not wearing face coverings.”
Disabled campaigners will be outside the inquiry on Monday to “honour the devastating impact of the pandemic on disabled people and visibly show our solidarity with those who died or experienced hardship”.
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