Disabled people have attacked the government’s decision to start lifting the lockdown that has been in place since March, and have warned that some people with long-term health conditions could pay for that move with their lives.
The prime minister, Boris Johnson, announced on Sunday (pictured) that his government would now begin to ease the lockdown in England, while devolved governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland opted to retain stricter measures.
One key step announced by Johnson was to change the government’s advice to those in employment, which means that those who cannot work from home are now “actively encouraged to go to work”.
He also spoke of plans to begin the phased reopening of shops, and for some primary pupils to return to school, potentially as early as 1 June.
But concerns highlighted by at least four disabled people’s organisations about these moves have been shared by scientists who set up an independent group of experts in parallel with the government’s own SAGE committee of scientific advisers.
The Independent Sage Group said the government’s decision to ease the lockdown was “dangerous” and could lead to further localised epidemics.
The same day, researchers from University College London said in a study published in the Lancet that easing the lockdown too soon could lead to thousands of avoidable deaths among people with underlying health conditions such as heart and kidney disease, diabetes and severe obesity.
Most of this group are not on the list of about 2.5 million people across the UK considered by the government to be “clinically extremely vulnerable” to the virus and who have been advised to “shield themselves for some time yet”.
Two days before Johnson’s announcement, a snap poll of more than 600 disabled people who are most at risk from the virus showed nearly nine in 10 of them did not want the lockdown relaxed.
The poll of people who are shielding or clinically vulnerable to the virus was carried out by the user-led organisation Buckinghamshire Disability Services.
The day after Johnson’s announcement, BuDS said it had spent the morning “reassuring frightened and confused people” who had watched his speech.
Three days before Johnson’s speech, disabled activist Ellen Clifford, a member of the national steering group of Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC), told an online rally held by the People’s Assembly Against Austerity that if the lockdown ended too soon, many more disabled people would lose their lives.
She pointed to the loss of the disabled activist and DPAC member Manjeet Kaur, who died last month from coronavirus.
Clifford told the online rally: “If lockdown ends too soon, we will lose many, many more, either through the virus or through over-stretched NHS resources, not being able to respond to the illnesses or pre-existing impairments that disabled people have.”
DPAC confirmed last night that it believed Johnson had eased the lockdown too soon and that the government was “deliberately putting more disabled people’s lives at risk”.
Clifford told the rally that DPAC was particularly concerned about disabled workers who were receiving letters from the government telling them they needed to continue to self-isolate while they were also being pressured back into work by their employers.
She said: “Who will gain from all this? Not disabled people.
“COVID-19 has made it sharply apparent how little worth society places on our lives.
“And not the undervalued frontline workers, upon whom the running of society is dependant.
“It is of course the bosses, who already have way more than their fair share, who will benefit.
“The right-wing media are doing their best to help them, with headlines comparing the end of lockdown to a return to freedom, to sunny walks in the park and day trips to the seaside.
“In reality, a premature end to lockdown will mean a return to the daily slog surrounded by yet more death.
“And that’s why we need to continue to focus on the fight for PPE (personal protective equipment), for testing and to protect our communities.”
The grassroots disabled people’s organisation Bristol Reclaiming Independent Living (BRIL) said it believed that easing the lockdown rules would put disabled and chronically-ill people at further risk.
BRIL questioned how any disabled person could feel safe when, in March, the government said it “was unlikely that people receiving care in a care home or in the community will become infected”, but this week it had been shown that the number of deaths in care homes in England and Wales linked to coronavirus was likely to be more than 22,000.
One BRIL member also warned that the prime minister appeared to have “misrepresented the existence of adequate legal protection” for employees who feel unable or unwilling to return to work or fear the risk to themselves or an immediate family member who is disabled, chronically ill, or is otherwise at risk or shielding.
Greater Manchester Coalition of Disabled People (GMCDP) also raised concerns about the lifting of the lockdown, although it pointed out that some disabled people had found lockdown “utterly inaccessible” and had been pushed into crisis due to isolation and the change of routine and therefore could be glad to see it lifted sooner.
But Dennis Queen, a GMCDP spokesperson, said her organisation was concerned about the measures being taken to loosen the lockdown.
She said: “Many of us cannot perform the social distancing required, so we will be reliant on others avoiding us.
“Many disabled people who are vulnerable to infection (and won’t qualify for certain intensive care unit treatments) are not on the shielding list, but are still not safe to be out in public spaces.
“More people being around in general means care, health and support staff will be exposed to more risk of COVID-19.
“Some people feel they will be locked down until there is a cure or a vaccine – and will be locked down longer if we lower lockdown too early and this causes another spike.”
GMCDP urged all disabled workers to join a union and seek support if they were being asked to return to work too soon for their welfare, and called on the government to ensure there was live British Sign Language interpretation, captions and audio description on all public announcements about lockdown, and to produce it in accessible formats.
Queen added: “We urge the government to invest in and subsidise development of clear-view masks and then make them available for free to everyone who needs them – many people struggle to communicate when they can’t see faces, so this is an access issue.”
Disability Rights UK (DR UK) was another disabled people’s organisation to highlight that some disabled people were alarmed at the lockdown being eased so soon, while others were desperate to be freed from its restrictions.
A DR UK spokesperson said: “We would hope the government is following the best scientific and medical advice, and not just basing lockdown easing on economic advice.
“Many disabled people quite rightly fear the consequences of catching coronavirus and the potential impacts of easing lockdown.
“The guidance is so new, we don’t know what its impacts will be yet.
“Our role as an organisation is to listen to disabled people. We are receiving a range of opinions from disabled people.
“We are hearing people’s fears that lockdown is being lifted too soon, and that it puts people receiving care, both at home and in care homes, at serious risk.
“We are also hearing from disabled people who want to get on with living independently, and being allowed out of lockdown, with the necessary safety precautions and adaptations we need firmly in place.
“It is for the government to decide when lockdown should be lifted, not organisations without specific scientific advice.
“Within that, we are lobbying strongly so that government is reminded that disabled people should be considered front and centre, and not as an afterthought.”
*Links to sources of information and support during the coronavirus pandemic include the following: