Serious concerns have emerged over advice being given by Public Health England (PHE) to people with long-term health conditions after the Commons Speaker, who has diabetes, insisted he had been told he can continue to work in the Houses of Parliament.
Next week, parliament will become far busier than it was before the Whitsun break, after the government told all MPs they should return to parliament, rather than allowing many of them to continue to work from home.
The Speaker, Sir Lindsay Hoyle, who has type one diabetes, is planning to stay working in parliament, which will involve chairing debates in the main Commons chamber, despite people with diabetes being considered “clinically vulnerable” to COVID-19.
The government has this week been accused of “acting recklessly” by trying to force other MPs who are disabled or have long-term health conditions to return to parliament next week, while the country is still in the grip of the pandemic (see separate story).
The government’s own guidance makes it clear that people with diabetes are considered “clinically vulnerable” and are therefore at higher risk of severe illness from coronavirus.
The “staying alert and safe” guidance, last updated on 22 May, adds: “You are advised to stay at home as much as possible and, if you do go out, take particular care to minimise contact with others outside your household.”
But a spokesperson for the Speaker told Disability News Service (DNS) yesterday (Wednesday) that PHE had advised him he can continue to work in the House of Commons because he is under 70 (he is 62), has no other underlying health conditions and is under medical supervision.
This advice appears to conflict with the government’s official guidance.
A spokesperson for the Speaker pointed to a letter in which he told MPs that House of Commons authorities were “working together with Public Health England to ensure the parliamentary estate is a COVID-19 secure workplace by the time we return from the Whitsun recess on 2 June”.
The Speaker’s spokesperson said: “Mr Speaker is fit and well – and he’s busy getting on with the day job.
“Like so many others living with type one diabetes, Sir Lindsay’s experience has shown, that with the right support from healthcare professionals – and careful management – people can live full and happy lives following their diagnosis.”
Asked by DNS yesterday if it stood by its advice to Sir Lindsay that it was safe for him to continue working in the House of Commons next week, a PHE spokesperson said: “We wouldn’t comment on individual cases but please see government guidance advice, which includes advice for vulnerable groups.”
This advice suggests that people like Sir Lindsay with diabetes should “stay at home as much as possible”.
Neither the Speaker’s office nor PHE has been able to clear up this confusion this morning.
Meanwhile, there is growing evidence of the risks faced by people with diabetes during the pandemic.
NHS figures have shown that almost one in three people who have died with COVID-19 in hospital in England had diabetes, while most people with diabetes could soon be forced to self-isolate to provide further protection, as a result of an “active review” of groups that are most vulnerable to coronavirus.
Asked if there was a risk that the Speaker’s actions could lull other people with diabetes into a false sense of security – and provide ammunition for employers who try to force people with diabetes back into the workplace against their wishes – his spokesperson had failed to comment by 1pm today (Thursday).
In the letter, Sir Lindsay said he was “personally sympathetic to those who need to stay at home because they are vulnerable, shielding or have caring responsibilities”.
He said he had continued to express his view to the government that the possibility of taking part in parliamentary proceedings online “should remain for these colleagues” and that individual political parties “have a duty of care to their MPs to ensure that they are not put at risk and protection is available for those who need it”.
He added: “The house authorities are working together with Public Health England to ensure the parliamentary estate is a COVID-19 secure workplace by the time we return from the Whitsun recess on 2 June.”
*For sources of information and support during the coronavirus crisis, visit the DNS advice and information page
Picture: Sir Lindsay Hoyle with Commons staff and MPs in the Commons chamber before the Whitsun break
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