NHS England is facing the threat of legal action after campaigners warned that large parts of its vital coronavirus “test and trace” programme were not accessible to disabled people.
More than 85 disabled people and allies have signed a letter – likely to be sent today (Thursday) – warning NHS England that its system ignores the needs of disabled people.
They say the system has been designed without thought for access, even though many disabled people with long-term health conditions are at higher risk of contracting and dying from COVID-19.
Among their concerns is that disabled people will be unable to access testing for the virus, or could receive incorrect results, because they have not been able to follow or understand the instructions.
They say the access flaws in the system could create an increased risk to the health of a disabled person – delaying treatment for COVID-19 – and put those they have contact with at greater risk of contracting the virus.
They also point out that some disabled people need a negative COVID-19 test result to secure hospital treatment.
At least one disabled person has already been prevented from having a test by the scheme’s access flaws, leading to them being denied urgent medical treatment.
The disabled woman needed an urgent chest X-ray but the hospital wanted her to have a negative coronavirus test as high temperatures caused by her condition were triggering a COVID-19 alert.
The scheme’s flawed access also puts the overall success of the test and trace system at risk.
The letter to NHS England was written by disabled campaigners from Reasonable Access, which focuses on empowering disabled people to “assert and enforce” their rights to access.
They believe the government did not even consider the access needs of disabled people when it was designing the test and trace system.
And they believe these failings mean it could have breached the Equality Act, the Human Rights Act and NHS England’s own Accessible Information Standard (PDF).
Their letter highlights a series of concerns about the accessibility of the much-delayed and criticised scheme, which is designed to prevent a second wave of COVID-19.
These include concerns about instructions for test kits, the communication needs of those booking tests, arrangements at test centres, home-testing kits with no tactile markings, and the lack of alternatives for those who cannot use nasal and throat swabs safely.
The letter also warns that the government appears to have failed to publish any information which tells disabled people how their access needs will be met.
Natalya Dell, co-founder of Reasonable Access, said the government’s failure to consider access issues was yet another example of how disabled people’s needs have been ignored or treated as an afterthought during the pandemic.
She said: “It feels like no one in Westminster, NHS England or Public Health England is asking themselves, ‘How is this accessible to different groups of people?’ about every aspect of policy and decision-making.
“It’s not just ignorance. Government, the NHS and local authorities are not responding to enquiries from disabled people and DDPOs (Deaf and disabled people’s organisations) about urgent access issues.
“In some cases, the government is not even responding to legal correspondence until after court proceedings have been issued.
“If anyone else behaved like that, the courts would sanction them strongly.”
She added: “Until disabled people and other marginalised people’s groups are fully included in all areas of policy and decision-making, disabled people and others will experience unnecessary barriers which should never have existed in the first place.”
DHSC had failed to comment by noon today (Thursday).
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