Disabled people’s organisations have demanded an inquiry into the reasons behind the disproportionately high number of deaths of disabled people during the pandemic, following the publication of “shocking” and long-overdue official figures.
They have also called on the government to take urgent action to protect disabled people from COVID-19, after the figures showed younger disabled women were as much as 11 times more likely to die from coronavirus than non-disabled women in the same age group.
They spoke out after the Office for National Statistics (ONS) finally produced the first official figures* to show how many disabled people in England and Wales have died from COVID-19, four months after the UK’s first recorded death.
Despite the shocking figures, their publication passed almost unnoticed in the media.
And they came as the government announced a further relaxation of the restrictions affecting disabled people who have been shielding during the crisis (see separate story).
The new figures show that younger disabled males (those “limited a lot” in daily life and aged between nine and 64) were 6.5 times more likely to have died due to COVID-19 than non-disabled males, while disabled females between nine and 64 were even more at risk, with a rate of death 11.3 times higher than non-disabled females in the same age group.
For older people, the rates were 2.4 for men aged 65 and over and 3.2 for women.
The figures also show that about 22,500 disabled people of all ages died due to COVID-19 between 2 March and 15 May, compared with about 15,500 non-disabled people.
Among those aged between nine and 64, there were about 1,600 deaths of disabled people (including both those “limited a lot” and those “limited a little”), compared with about 2,100 non-disabled people.
Mike Smith, the former disability commissioner of the Equality and Human Rights Commission and now chief executive of the east London disabled people’s organisation Real, was among those backing calls for an inquiry.
He told Disability News Service (DNS): “These numbers show the harsh reality that lies behind the statements that COVID-19 only affects ‘older people and those with pre-existing conditions’.”
He added: “There is an urgent need for government to recognise this and provide adequate support for disabled people to remain safe and have a viable existence.
“We need a public inquiry into this that takes into account this massive differential in deaths, and whether this was compounded by NICE and BMA guidance on who should receive support.
“Otherwise thousands more disabled people will die unnecessarily because our lives are not valued.”
Smith said the figures showed the failure to anticipate the need to monitor and evaluate the impact that coronavirus could have on disabled people, and the consequent failure to warn disabled people “about the disproportionate risk of death and give them adequate support and protection”.
He said: “Even if the government hadn’t realised at the beginning, they should be taking further action now to protect disabled people, rather than significantly reducing the lockdown without regard to our lives.
“The government need to provide additional support for those who will need it to remain alive, let alone stay safe, instead of shutting down the measures for those who are shielding.”
The ONS report also concludes that the risk of a disabled person dying falls once social factors such as population density, socio-economic status (for example, whether someone is unemployed), whether a person owns their own home, the composition of their household, and the deprivation of the area where they live, are taken into account.
Accounting for these factors, and for age, the rate of death is 1.9 times higher for males who were limited a lot and 2.4 times higher for females who were limited a lot, compared with non-disabled people.
But Smith warned against putting too much emphasis on these lower figures.
He said: “The whole point is you’re more likely to be in poverty or experience other social disadvantage if you’re disabled.
“It would be disingenuous to ignore the headline figures, and emphasise those factors, because that treats disability in purely medical model terms.
“It does not take into account all of the factors in life disabled people face above and beyond their impairment – the social factors that are actually what make people disabled.
“I can understand the need for ONS to try and understand the figures, but they need to be careful in their language, so it is not perceived that they are explaining away the problem.”
Fazilet Hadi, head of policy for Disability Rights UK, said the government must bear some responsibility for the disproportionate number of deaths of disabled people, and she also called for an inquiry into the causes.
She said the virus had led to a “cull” of disabled people which explained why they had been “living in fear” since the outbreak began.
She said: “Government failed to protect disabled people from the start of this outbreak.
“It knew where we were. It knew many of us received care in the community and in supported accommodation and care homes.
“It prioritised the NHS over social care when they should have had parity.”
She added: “Support for care home residents was slow in coming and people with coronavirus were actually placed in care homes.”
She also pointed to the failure to procure personal protective equipment for those providing support to disabled people, and the decision to reduce and remove disabled people’s right to support through its Coronavirus Act.
She also pointed out that the government’s social care action plan was not published until 15 April.
She said: “We said at the beginning of the coronavirus crisis that disabled people must not be allowed to become cannon fodder.
“The government called us vulnerable. The government made us vulnerable.”
Linda Burnip, co-founder of Disabled People Against Cuts, also backed an inquiry, and said: “While these figures are shocking they come as no real surprise given the apparent rationing of healthcare for disabled people that seems to have been a factor of this pandemic, not just in the UK but internationally as well.
“What we need urgently is more detailed information about the so-far unidentified causes.”
Dr Marie Tidball, a disabled academic, a Labour city councillor in Oxford, and coordinator of Oxford University’s Disability Law and Policy Project, said the figures were likely to be a significant under-estimate of the number of disabled people who have died.
She said they were “a tragic indictment of the government’s approach to shielding, its failure to prevent the spread in care homes and other institutional settings and the utter misjudgement of their inertia to prepare for the crisis earlier in the year”.
She also backed calls for an inquiry, but she said it must be accompanied by “urgent action”, including a cross-party working group to investigate the deaths and make recommendations for a draft emergency bill that would “change what is happening now, before we get a second wave, and mitigate the risk of more deaths as we exit lockdown over the coming months”.
She told DNS the government had “failed to protect the lives of disabled people, failed to give them a place at the decision-making table during the crisis” and “failed in their legal duties under the Equality Act 2010”.
She said: “We need them to be held to account for their decision-making, in response to the pandemic, for every last death from this terrible virus.
“This is a moment which requires urgent answers and action for the government to show it values disabled people and our place in society.
“The prime minister must work with disabled people and disabled people’s organisations to review evidence of what failures took place, to develop and implement a disability inclusive response to COVID-19 while our society continues to live with this dreadful disease and change the Coronavirus Act 2020 and related policy to meet [the government’s] duties under the Equality Act 2010.
“Only then can we begin to move forward from this tragedy.”
Vicky Foxcroft, Labour’s shadow minister for disabled people, who has been shielding at home during the pandemic, also backed calls for an inquiry.
She said: “I think we need that.
“At the start of this pandemic, we knew that many disabled people were more vulnerable to COVID-19, yet the government failed to consult with and consider the needs and concerns of people with disabilities.
“The government needs to urgently examine these deeply concerning figures and outline the next steps to ensure disabled people are protected, particularly as lockdown measures are eased.”
Professor Peter Beresford, co-chair of Shaping Our Lives, said: “We knew almost from the start that disabled people and people with long term conditions were groups particularly at mortal risk from COVID-19.
“Yet they have received the least attention and the least help. All the public brouhaha about the NHS served as a diversion from the catastrophic failure of the social care system on which disabled people are most reliant.
“A supposed helping agency actually became a killing zone.
“Clearly the government plan is to encourage us to forget about the pandemic as quickly as possible and divert attention from social care failure.
“We must challenge this and fight for radically improved pandemic preparation and an effective free independent living service after this disaster, by every legal means possible.”
He said SOL would back an inquiry, but only if it was led by disabled people, with its remit agreed with disabled people and their organisations, if it reported quickly, and if it made “full provisions for access, including outreach, to include the views and perspectives of the diversity of disabled people”, including BAME disabled people, people with learning difficulties and people who communicate differently.
Ian Jones, from the WOWcampaign, called for a public inquiry to investigate why the lives of disabled people “don’t seem to matter” to Boris Johnson, the prime minister, his senior adviser Dominic Cummings, and health and social care secretary Matt Hancock.
Jones said: “It is not good enough for the government to tell us that disabled people have a greater susceptibility to everything.
“When I sat with some Tory MPs discussing my belief that welfare reforms were killing disabled people, I was told I should expect disabled people to die sooner than the average Tory voter because they were disabled.
“Disability does not always have a direct impact on life expectancy. To imply it does is wrong and sinister.
“What has an impact on our life expectancies are government policies such as putting us into poverty through welfare reforms and discharging patients from NHS hospitals who might be carriers of COVID-19 into care homes for old and disabled people.”
Laura Stringhetti, from WOW, also called for an inquiry.
She said it was “hard to quantify from these figures how many disabled people died because of pre-existing conditions (and everything that could be done was done but they were just too ill), how many died because not enough was done to treat them (as they were disabled) and how many died because 10 years of austerity had already worsened their state of health”.
*The ONS figures examine the impact of the pandemic on those in England and Wales who described themselves as disabled people in the 2011 census, either by saying they were “limited a little” in their daily lives or “limited a lot”. This means that those under the age of nine are not covered by the new figures, which also do not take account of those who have become disabled over the last nine years. Therefore its figures probably underestimate the number of disabled people who have died
**For sources of information and support during the coronavirus crisis, visit the DNS advice and information page
Picture: (From left to right) Fazilet Hadi, Dr Marie Tidball and Mike Smith
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