The major supermarkets and the UK government must do more to solve the “food crisis” that is still affecting millions of disabled people months into the coronavirus crisis, MPs have heard from a national disabled people’s organisation.
The environment, food and rural affairs committee heard that the coronavirus crisis had turned into a food crisis that had “swept away the careful arrangements that disabled people had made for getting their food”.
Fazilet Hadi, policy manager for Disability Rights UK (DR UK), told the committee – as part of its inquiry into COVID-19 and food supply – that the government’s scheme to provide support for those who are seen as particularly vulnerable to infection had been welcome, but had also caused knock-on problems for many disabled people.
Many of those who previously shopped online because of sight, physical or other impairments, lost their ability to book deliveries because they were not placed in this “clinically vulnerable” group.
At the same time, millions of others who had previously shopped in-store “found themselves completely without the ability to shop in the usual way”.
This week, Tesco became the first supermarket to be threatened with an urgent legal injunction as part of a class action being taken against the UK’s biggest supermarkets by 320 disabled people – many of them taking action against two or three supermarket chains – who say they have been discriminated against during the coronavirus crisis.
Joanne, the disabled single mother taking the case against Tesco, with the support of solicitors Fry Law, is on the government’s list of extremely clinically vulnerable people, and hers is seen as one of the most urgent among the 320 cases.
She has multiple health conditions which currently leave her unable to leave her bed while she recovers from surgery she underwent in late March.
Although Joanne has regular delivery slots through Tesco, the supermarket is refusing to deliver her shopping at a time when her care workers are there to accept and clean it.
Fry Law yesterday (Wednesday) sent a letter to Tesco asking it to act urgently to make a reasonable adjustment for her under the Equality Act by promising to deliver her shopping at a time when her care workers are with her.
If it fails to do so within five days, Fry Law will make an application to the county court to order temporary “relief” through a court order until the case can be heard in full.
A Tesco spokesperson said: “We are aware of this claim, and have offered to engage with this customer’s representatives about her needs.
“We are continuing to do everything we can to support our most vulnerable customers, and are confident that we are fully compliant with all relevant laws and government guidance.
“We have more than doubled the number of online slots available since the start of the crisis, to 1.3 million slots this week, and are currently supporting more than 530,000 vulnerable customers with priority access.
“We would encourage any customers facing similar issues to contact us directly.”
Hadi told the Commons committee last Friday (pictured) that the pandemic crisis had impacted the ability of millions of disabled people to secure food.
Surveys still show about 45 per cent of disabled people struggling to secure the food they need, she said, down from about 60 per cent in early April.
Tory MP Derek Thomas told her that 45 per cent was “a colossal number of people who are not getting the food they need”.
Hadi said the UK government had failed to speak soon enough to groups that knew about the needs of disabled people, preventing a “more joined-up response”.
She said: “They were acting very quickly [at the start of the crisis], but we could have acted quickly as well.
“The fact we weren’t at any table until a bit later on in the crisis has resulted in maybe more problems than there needed to be.”
She said there had been “silence” from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) for the first few weeks of the crisis, and officials had only begun to talk to DR UK about the support needs of disabled people from mid-April.
But even now, she said, “we are not sitting down with DEFRA and the supermarkets and talking about the big plan” and asking “who are the groups who are really affected, who are struggling to access food because of the coronavirus situation, what’s our strategy and what role is each of us playing”.
Hadi also told the committee that supermarkets needed to think more about their duties to make reasonable adjustments for their disabled shoppers under the Equality Act.
Among the problems facing disabled people who want to shop in-store are difficulties with signage, with social distancing, wheelchair-users unable to reach higher shelves, and others who are forced to stand for long periods in queues.
Hadi said it was time for supermarkets to take part in discussions with DR UK and others “about what we need to put in place over the next few months, the next year, that allows disabled and older people to shop safely and independently”.
She said: “I do think this situation is going to go on for a long time with people not getting the online slots, not getting the support they need in-store, so I’d really like to see us ‘sit round the table’ with supermarkets and government and the third sector.”
She also called on the major supermarkets to “lead the way” on introducing reasonable adjustments for their disabled customers, to show smaller shops what could be done.
And she said the priority was to find solutions that allowed disabled people to shop independently – with the support they needed – and then find local “safety net” solutions for those who might still need them.
Hadi, who herself has no sight and so is currently unable to shop safely in person in a supermarket, said: “We just need to think through what that looks like for disabled people because I don’t want to be under house arrest for an unlimited period just because I can’t social distance, just because I can’t have some support.”
*For sources of information and support during the coronavirus crisis, visit the DNS advice and information page
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