The equality and human rights watchdog is facing pressure to launch an inquiry into how the UK government breached the rights of disabled people in at least 17 different ways during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) did not rule out launching an inquiry this week, but it promised only to “actively” consider how it would use its legal powers to address the impact coronavirus has had on disabled people.
Last week, Disability News Service (DNS) published new research which showed how the government repeatedly breached disabled people’s rights during the crisis.
Among the breaches that have been proved to have cost lives are the delays in testing social care staff for coronavirus, and the decision to discharge hospital patients into care homes without testing them for COVID-19 (see separate story).
Others include restricting disabled people’s rights through the government’s emergency Coronavirus Act; failing to ensure disabled people on direct payments had access to personal protective equipment for their personal assistants; and failing to provide a British Sign Language interpreter during the daily televised COVID-19 briefings (pictured).
This week, the pan-impairment disabled people’s organisation Inclusion London called on EHRC to use its powers to launch an inquiry into how the government had apparently failed to comply with its duties under the Equality Act 2010.
Jon Abrams, Inclusion London’s campaigns and justice officer, said: “It is a scandal that the Equality and Human Rights Commission has not used its regulatory powers to establish a formal inquiry into the treatment of disabled people by the government.
“This state of affairs cannot continue because it will cost more lives.
“Over the last decade, thousands of avoidable and premature deaths have been linked to austerity and government welfare reforms.
“Moreover, in 2018, Professor Alston, the UN’s special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, concluded that the UK government had inflicted ‘great misery’ on disabled people and other marginalised groups, with ministers in a state of ‘denial’ about the impact of their policies.
“Our recently published report, Abandoned, Forgotten and Ignored, paints a stark picture of a government that has from the outset of COVID-19 discriminated against us and ignored our needs.”
He said the “awful consequences” of this are reflected in the “grim data” released by the Office for National Statistics, which found 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.
Abrams said: “It is imperative, therefore, that the EHRC – as our national human rights institution – takes robust and muscular action and launches an enquiry to challenge the policies and practices that are causing significant disadvantage and damage to disabled people across the country.”
Vicky Foxcroft, Labour’s shadow minister for disabled people, said she was in favour of an urgent and quick inquiry – if it was properly independent of the government – but said that it must lead to action.
But she pointed to the huge cuts in funding the government has imposed on the commission over the last decade.
She said: “The EHRC needs to be properly funded in order to carry out these urgent investigations.”
An EHRC spokesperson declined to say if the commission was considering an inquiry.
But she said: “We are very concerned about the impact coronavirus has had on disabled people.
“We have been active on a range of issues during the crisis – from access to appropriate healthcare and food shopping, to treatment in social care settings and the provision of accessible information on the pandemic.
“We are now actively considering how and on what areas to use our legal powers as we move into recovery, but we must learn from this crisis by ensuring that disabled people are supported and, where necessary, protected in the event of a second wave.”
Those legal powers could include launching an investigation, holding an inquiry, and requiring that a public body like the government stops any discriminatory practices.
*For sources of information and support during the coronavirus crisis, visit the DNS advice and information page
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