The government has been accused of a “totally reprehensible failure” after its new Disability Unit failed to make a single announcement in more than three months, while more than 20,000 disabled people were dying from COVID-19.
The unit was set up last year to “break down the barriers faced by disabled people” but its failure to make any policy announcements since the early days of the coronavirus pandemic has come as evidence grows of the disproportionate impact of the COVID-19 crisis on disabled people.
Last week, Disability News Service reported on two new studies that showed how disabled people had been affected by the crisis – by Greater Manchester Disabled People’s Panel and academics from Oxford University – with cuts to support, and problems accessing food, medicine and information, and significant ongoing impact on their mental health.
There were calls for an inquiry last month from leading disabled figures when Office for National Statistics (ONS) figures revealed that younger disabled women were as much as 11 times more likely to die from coronavirus than non-disabled women in the same age group.
The ONS figures showed that 22,500 disabled people of all ages had died due to COVID-19 between 2 March and 15 May, compared with about 15,500 non-disabled people.
Despite this mounting evidence of the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on disabled people, the Disability Unit’s web page has remained silent since 2 April, with the minister for disabled people, Justin Tomlinson (pictured), failing to use the page to speak out, report on progress or announce any policy developments to deal with the crisis.
The Disability Unit is supposed to support Tomlinson, and one of its responsibilities is to help government departments “develop and monitor policies that remove barriers faced by disabled people”.
But since four announcements between 31 March and 2 April – the first it had issued since its formation in November 2019 – there has been no further communication through its web page.
The Disability Unit brings together the former Office for Disability Issues and other experts from across government, and has offices in London, Sheffield and Leeds.
There has been anger and concern at the Disability Unit’s failure from disabled activists and disabled people’s organisations.
Bob Ellard, a member of the national steering group of Disabled People Against Cuts, said: “This is a totally reprehensible failure while so many disabled people are dying and going through severe hardship. This government shows it just doesn’t care about us.”
“This week we are being left in no doubt that disabled people do not matter to this Tory government.”
Tracey Lazard, chief executive of Inclusion London, said: “From the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, disabled people have experienced discrimination, disadvantage and disproportionately high death rates, as starkly detailed in our recently published report Abandoned, Forgotten and Isolated.
“Central government, despite these dreadful inequalities, has mostly failed to involve, engage with and listen to disabled people and Deaf and disabled people’s organisations in planning the response to the pandemic.
“The Disability Unit’s website is an example of the government’s failure.
“Despite a commitment ‘to break down the barriers faced by disabled people in the UK’, there is little or no practical guidance and support on the website for Deaf and disabled people who face multiple problems, including accessing food and medicine, social isolation, inaccessible information and advice, increasing levels of psychological distress and shortages of personal protective equipment.
“Likewise, we see no evidence that the government is working with disabled people’s organisations on COVID issues or to develop the National Disability Strategy due to be completed in 2020.
“We know the Disability Unit has met with the big disability charities, but despite writing twice to the minister for disabled people requesting a meeting, representatives from Reclaiming Our Futures Alliance (ROFA) have yet to meet with any government officials or ministers.
“This disregard and lack of engagement with disabled people and our organisations is unfortunately nothing new but for this hostile behaviour from the government to continue at the same time as the pandemic has so disproportionately harmed disabled people is nothing short of a scandal.
“Like BAME [black, Asian and minority ethnic] communities, disabled people have died as a direct result of structural inequality.
“This has to stop, and the only way to do that is for the government to start working with, and investing in, our communities.”
Mark Harrison, a member of the ROFA steering group, said: “Disabled people have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19 and there have been a disproportionate number of deaths of disabled people.
“The silence is telling. It feels like the Disability Unit is not a functioning policy unit, other than to create top-down policy based on the government’s view of disability, rather than meeting its commitments under international treaties.”
Laura Welti, manager of Bristol Disability Equality Forum, said: “It’s no wonder so many disabled people are saying the government considers their lives utterly expendable when even the one part of the government that is meant to ‘look out’ for them has remained silent since the second week of lockdown.
“At a time when it was needed most, it remained silent.
“It didn’t speak out about government guidance to the NHS that they should discharge patients to care homes (guidance which caused thousands of deaths), it didn’t raise concerns as to why the death toll reached more than 50 per cent disabled people, or when the government decided shielding was magically no longer necessary.
“Nor was it busy doing anything else, like producing disabled people-specific information and/or central government information for the public, in accessible formats.
“It would be a lot more honest to replace their Disability Confident ‘badge’ with one saying Disability Indifferent: it describes them most accurately.”
The grassroots disabled people’s organisation Bristol Reclaiming Independent Living (BRIL) said it was “deeply disappointed, but not surprised” by the unit’s silence during the pandemic.
A BRIL spokesperson said: “The only message about ‘supporting disabled people‘ from the unit was in fact to announce [on 31 March] government plans to remove legal duties to support disabled people, under so called ‘emergency legislation’.
“Over three months ago the government talked about ‘National Strategy for Disabled People to remove barriers and increase participation’, yet there has been nothing from the unit or the ‘Regional Stakeholder Network’.
“The minister for disabled people, Justin Tomlinson, did not appear at the daily briefings, or engage with disabled people’s organisations.”
BRIL was another organisation to point to the ONS statistics which showed that more than half of those dying from COVID-19 have been disabled people.
The BRIL spokesperson said: “Inequality and poverty have increased, while the government continues to ignore their duties under the Equality Act and the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD).
“Without exception, disabled people and people with chronic illness in our network feel forgotten about.
“Trust in the government is at an all time low.”
Both the Department for Work and Pensions and the Cabinet Office had failed to comment by noon today (Thursday).
*For sources of information and support during the coronavirus crisis, visit the DNS advice and information page
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