The government could face legal action if it does not reconsider its strategy on how to ensure the delivery of vital groceries and food to disabled people, it has been warned by a leading disabled people’s organisation.
Disability Rights UK (DR UK) has written to health and social secretary Matt Hancock to express its “grave concern” about the measures he has taken, and his failure to consult with disabled people’s organisations.
The letter – which was copied to the information commissioner – was sent on Friday (27 March) by DR UK chief executive Kamran Mallick, as concerns about the issue have continued to grow across the country.
Much of this alarm has come from disabled people unable to arrange home deliveries of food and other groceries (see separate story).
Last week, the government announced that 1.5 million disabled people had been categorised as “extremely vulnerable” to the virus and would receive regular deliveries of basic groceries if they do not have their own support network of friends and family.
The list includes those with severe respiratory conditions, many people on immunosuppression therapies, and those with certain cancers.
But supermarkets are now being allowed to use this government database to prioritise home deliveries – although it is not yet clear whether all supermarkets are doing so – and disabled customers are being told a home delivery will only be considered if they are on this restricted list.
This could leave millions of disabled people who cannot safely shop independently, or in many cases cannot even leave their homes, with no way to buy food.
Mallick (pictured) says in the letter that DR UK has been contacted by many disabled people who are unable to visit supermarkets themselves and are “expressing anxiety about their ability to obtain food and essential supplies from supermarkets”.
He says DR UK believes supermarkets are breaching their duties under the Equality Act to make reasonable adjustments for their disabled customers, with inaccessible websites and telephone helplines that are busy for hours on end.
Mallick says DR UK is particularly concerned about the government’s plans to share its database of the 1.5 million people in England it considers most “vulnerable” in the current crisis with Sainsbury’s and other supermarkets.
He says this raises serious data protection concerns, while the government’s “medical model” definition of who needs help will overlook many disabled people who will need support to obtain food and other groceries during the crisis.
He warns Hancock that DR UK has taken legal advice from solicitors Fry Law on the data protection issue and is “ready if necessary, to apply to the Courts to prevent you from proceeding down this route”.
Mallick says the government is in effect assisting supermarkets in “evading their responsibilities under the Equality Act to make reasonable adjustments”.
He also raises concerns that the government has not yet confirmed that those delivering supplies to people categorised as extremely vulnerable will have had their backgrounds checked through the Disclosure and Barring Service.
DHSC had not responded to a request to comment on the letter by noon today (Thursday).
The British Retail Consortium refused to comment on the Equality Act concerns about supermarkets, but a spokesperson issued the following statement: “Retailers are working round the clock to expand capacity for online deliveries, but as this accounts for around eight per cent of total food sales, physical stores will remain the most important way of getting food.
“Everyone must come together in the current crisis and we encourage everyone to consider, if they can, picking up food for vulnerable, disabled, or self-isolating neighbours.
“Meanwhile, government and retailers are working hard to identify and support vulnerable people who are unable to shop.”
A spokesperson for the Information Commissioner’s Office said: “Data protection law enables organisations to share personal data when it is appropriate to do so.
“In a national emergency such as the COVID-19 pandemic, sharing information between organisations can make a real difference to protecting vulnerable individuals.
“Where it’s necessary, public authorities are able to share relevant information to help provide essential support services, as long as they share only the minimum amount of information required and ensure that it is not retained for longer than needed.
“Data sharing can be done in accordance with the law, including putting the appropriate safeguards in place so people’s information is handled responsibly.”
But Chris Fry, of Fry Law, who has been advising DR UK, told Disability News Service there was still a need for reassurance that there were safeguards in place, and for the government to explain the lawful basis for sharing the information with supermarkets.
He pointed out that many supermarkets have their own banking, finance and insurance arms, so it was vital to know how disabled people’s personal data would be used and what safeguards were in place.
He said that just using the existence of the crisis as “justification” for sharing the data “would not cut it”.
*Sources of information and support during the coronavirus pandemic include the following:
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