New research by Disability News Service (DNS) shows how the UK government has breached the rights of disabled people in at least 17 different ways during the coronavirus pandemic.
From restricting their rights in its emergency Coronavirus Act, to failing to ensure disabled people on direct payments had access to personal protective equipment, and preventing shielding MPs from taking part in Commons debates, the research shows repeated breaches of the Equality Act, the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD).
Some of the 17 breaches* have cost many lives, particularly 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.
DNS has compiled the list to highlight how the government has repeatedly failed to protect disabled people during the pandemic; to help push the government into launching an urgent inquiry to learn lessons from its handling of the crisis; and to try to persuade it to take a new approach before an expected second wave of the virus this winter.
Although about half of the failings were eventually addressed – usually in response to campaigning by disabled people, often working alongside lawyers – others were not.
There are also concerns that even those breaches of rights that were addressed could re-emerge if the country’s public services are threatened this winter.
Today, three disabled people who have played significant roles in exposing how disabled people’s rights have been breached during the pandemic have spoken out to call for action after seeing the research.
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, said the government’s pandemic strategy appeared to be to “protect the majority rather than those most at risk”.
He said the DNS list showed that disabled people “are not a priority for the government”.
He said: “While some good measures, such as the additional support for those shielding, were put in place, the DNS list shows there was not a joined-up approach to ensuring disabled people got the support or protection they needed.”
Smith said the list indicated breaches of both the Equality Act and the human rights of disabled people.
He said he believed some measures taken by the government amounted to indirect discrimination towards disabled people, others showed a failure to make reasonable adjustments, while there were also apparent failures to meet the government’s public sector equality duty, all under the Equality Act.
And, he said, there was a repeated failure to maintain disabled people’s human rights.
He said: “This is why disabled people have joined with others to call for a judge-led public inquiry to urgently consider lessons that can be learned from the government’s handling of COVID-19.”
Real, Inclusion London and Merton Centre for Independent Living are among scores of organisations that signed a letter (PDF) to prime minister Boris Johnson from the Public Interest Law Centre and the Law Centres Network earlier this month which called for such an inquiry.
The letter was also signed by the disabled crossbench peer Baroness [Jane] Campbell.
Smith contributed to the letter by highlighting the disproportionate impact of the crisis in the UK on disabled people.
Smith said: “It is clear that, unless there is joined-up pressure on the government, they will divide different minority groups and none of us will get what we need.
“While the prime minister may recently have said there will be an inquiry, we want it sooner rather than later so we can learn the lessons before any second wave of the virus comes along.”
He also called on the Equality and Human Rights Commission to use its own regulatory powers to establish a formal inquiry into how the government may have failed to comply with its duties under the Equality Act.
Smith added: “It is only right they should do so. I can think of no more pressing need than to intervene to save the lives of potentially thousands more disabled people.”
Tracey Lazard, chief executive of Inclusion London, said the research showed that the government “has a problem with disabled people”.
Last month, Inclusion London published research which showed how disabled people had faced discrimination in every area of their lives from the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic.
Lazard said: “These 17 examples of discrimination, exclusion, disregard and abject failure to comply with the most basic of reasonable adjustments reveal just how deep, systemic and structural our marginalisation is.
“At every available opportunity in this pandemic, the government appears to have chosen to act against disabled people rather than with us: removing rather than strengthening our rights and protections, denying us information rather than making it accessible, preventing us accessing support rather than helping us get it, and treating us at best as an afterthought rather than an important community to engage with and listen to.
“This state of affairs cannot continue because it will cost lives.
“The government must urgently work with disabled people’s organisations now and over the coming months to understand what went so badly wrong and what must be done better before the likely second wave hits.”
The third leading disabled figure to speak out is Dr Marie Tidball, coordinator of Oxford University’s Disability Law and Policy Project.
She said the 17 examples “illustrate the failure of government to fulfil its national and international human rights obligations to disabled people”.
She edited a report by the university which showed earlier this month that the government’s policy-making during the crisis had breached its duties to disabled people under both the Equality Act and UNCRPD.
Tidball said: “Disabled people in the United Kingdom, like those from BAME groups, have died from COVID-19 on a tragic scale.
“The magnitude of deaths amounts to a violation of the state’s obligation to protect the right to life, under article 2 of the ECHR.”
She added: “The Academy of Medical Sciences predicts a second peak of deaths on the same magnitude of what we have already seen.
“Urgent action is needed, therefore, by government to prevent a second wave of deaths and fulfil its duties under article 2 of the ECHR by undertaking an inquiry to investigate fully the impact of COVID-19 on disabled people and the scale and causes of COVID-19-related deaths of disabled people during the first wave of the pandemic.”
Vicky Foxcroft, Labour’s shadow minister for disabled people, said the DNS list “confirms that disabled people have been an afterthought for the government throughout this pandemic”.
She said: “The lack of communication from this government has led to tragic consequences; disabled people deserve better and will never be an afterthought for Labour.
“Lessons need to urgently be learnt to avoid further distress to disabled people and their families; it is essential the government learns from its failings.”
DNS asked both the Cabinet Office and the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to comment on why there have been so many examples of discrimination and abuse of disabled people’s rights during the pandemic.
It also asked what this showed about the government’s attitude to disabled people, and what action it would take to ensure there was no repeat of these failings if there was a second wave of the pandemic.
Both departments refused to comment.
A DWP spokesperson said: “Thanks for sending this through to both departments and for the opportunity to comment.
“We do not have anything further to add in response to the questions you’ve raised below, from a DWP, Cabinet Office and Disability Unit perspective.
“I noticed some of your questions were in the remit of DHSC [the Department of Health and Social Care] who I have spoken to separately and have the same position as us on this.”
*These are the 17 ways in which the government has breached disabled people’s rights during the pandemic (DNS has further evidence for each one, in addition to the links provided):
- Its emergency Coronavirus Act restricted rights to care and education and the rights of people in mental distress
- The first official statistics showing how many disabled people were dying with coronavirus were not published until late June (they eventually showed that about 22,500 disabled people died due to COVID-19 between 2 March and 15 May, compared with about 15,500 non-disabled people)
- Many disabled people who receive direct payments to pay for their personal assistants were unable to access personal protective equipment
- The government only published guidance to help people on direct payments more than five weeks after it had published guidance for the wider social care sector
- The government repeatedly failed to publish vital public health information in formats that were accessible to disabled people (PDF)
- The government failed to provide a British Sign Language interpreter during its daily televised COVID-19 briefings
- NHS England guidance on banning visitors to patients discriminated against disabled people with high support needs (followed by a failure to consult disabled people on a new version of the guidance)
- The government’s test and trace programme was not accessible to many disabled people
- Direct payments users were given only two days to digest new government guidance if they wanted to take advantage of the government’s COVID-19 job scheme for their personal assistants
- Shielding MPs have not been able to take part remotely in House of Commons debates
- Delays in testing social care staff led to thousands of disabled and older residents of care homes becoming infected with COVID-19 and losing their lives
- Hospital patients were discharged into care homes without being tested for COVID-19, again causing the loss of thousands of lives
- The government’s Disability Unit stayed silent on its web page from 2 April to 20 July, while thousands of disabled people were dying from COVID-19
- The Department for Work and Pensions re-introduced benefit sanctions in early July, while millions of disabled people were still shielding from the virus
- Social care workers were omitted from a list of workers exempt from having to self-isolate for two weeks after entering the country
- Health and social care secretary Matt Hancock refused to provide guidance that would ensure disabled people had the same rights as non-disabled people to life-sustaining treatment if they contracted COVID-19
- The government introduced lockdown guidance (PDF) that discriminated against many disabled people who needed to exercise more than once-a-day
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