NHS England has agreed to change its policy on hospital visitors so that it no longer discriminates against disabled people, in the face of at least two legal challenges.
It was facing the threat of legal action after refusing to update guidance on visitors that currently prevents disabled people with high support needs being accompanied into hospital if they become ill with coronavirus.
Disabled campaigners Fleur Perry and Mark Williams, who were both poised to seek judicial reviews of the guidance – issued last month in response to the pandemic crisis – have now been told that NHS England will amend its guidance “as soon as possible”.
The guidance (PDF) currently only allows a visitor to visit a patient in hospital in four situations: if the patient is in labour; if the patient is receiving end-of-life care; if they are visiting their child; or if the patient is experiencing significant mental distress.
But it does not allow a personal assistant (PA) or family carer to accompany a disabled person with other physical or communication support needs, even if they have been trained to meet those needs.
Both teams of lawyers are waiting to see the new guidance before withdrawing the threat of legal action.
Perry (pictured, right) said: “The visitor guidance as it stands at present puts disabled people at an unacceptable and unnecessary level of risk.
“I’m really glad that NHS England have taken our concerns seriously and will be changing the guidance ‘as soon as possible’.
“We haven’t been told when this will be yet, but I’m looking forward to reading the new guidance and making sure it’s going to work for disabled people.”
Perry, who was represented by Fry Law, said: “Disabled people need to be able to access hospital treatment safely and on an equal basis to everyone else, and there are legal mechanisms in place to protect that.
“I look forward to these rights being respected again quickly.”
She also thanked the more than 50 people who were involved in the campaign to secure a change in the guidance.
Williams (pictured, left), co-founder of Bristol Reclaiming Independent Living, welcomed the response from NHS England to a “pre action” legal letter sent on his behalf by solicitors Rook Irwin Sweeney.
He had been concerned that he would not be able to communicate with medical staff if he was not allowed to bring a PA with him into hospital if he was admitted during the pandemic.
He had said this was a failure to make reasonable adjustments under the Equality Act, and a breach of his human rights.
He said: “The idea of being in hospital and not being able to communicate with hospital staff, to tell them how I am feeling or ask them questions about what treatment they have planned, was terrifying.
“I knew it was important to take this action not just for me, but for all other people with communication and sensory needs that were facing similar worries.
“I would like to thank NHS England for listening to my concerns and agreeing to make changes to their guidance so quickly.”
He has also been told by both Bristol’s hospital trusts that he will be able to be supported by his PAs if he needs to be admitted to hospital, and that they will review and amend their own policies.
Polly Sweeney, a partner at Rook Irwin Sweeney, who represented Williams on a pro bono basis, said her firm would be checking with NHS England that it intends to carry out a rapid consultation before issuing the new guidance, as they had requested.
She said: “We are reassured by NHS England’s commitment that it will address our concerns but of course will be reviewing the document carefully once it has been issued.”
She added: “Whilst the responses of all the public bodies are welcomed, this case acts as an important reminder that even in these emergency times it is essential that there is consultation with the public and representative groups before policies such as this are produced so as to avoid steps like these having to be taken.”
BRIL said it was “an important result, not only for Mark, but for many disabled people and families across the country.”
But BRIL said the case was also “further evidence that excluding disabled people and our organisations from decision making results in at best flawed policies, and at worst breaches to our human rights.
“The discrimination and barriers faced by disabled people using public services can never be justified, whatever the circumstances.”
NHS England had not responded to requests for a comment by noon today (Thursday).
*Links to sources of information and support during the coronavirus pandemic include the following:
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