The UK and Welsh governments have been able to give only the vaguest of promises on how they are tackling the risk that hundreds of thousands of disabled people could be left unable to secure food and other groceries during the coronavirus pandemic.
There have been repeated concerns raised by disabled people about the failure of governments and supermarkets to ensure that disabled people can feed themselves during the crisis.
Some have even warned that many disabled people could starve if action was not taken.
The government has also been warned that it could face legal action if it does not reconsider its strategy on how to ensure the delivery of vital groceries and food to disabled people.
A small proportion of disabled people – about 1.75 million across England, Wales and Scotland – have been categorised as being at the highest risk from the virus and have been promised emergency measures such as grocery deliveries if needed.
But a much larger number of disabled people who also cannot shop safely in supermarkets or are unable to leave their homes have so far been forced to rely on friends, family, charity or luck for regular supplies of groceries.
And this week neither the UK nor the Welsh government were able to make any firm promises of action to help this group of people, six weeks after the UK government first published its COVID-19 action plan.
Their failure to provide firm plans for dealing with the issue came as Labour’s newly-appointed shadow minister for disabled people, Vicky Foxcroft*, raised the issue in her first letter to Justin Tomlinson, the minister for disabled people.
Foxcroft (pictured) called on Tomlinson to pressure environment secretary George Eustice and lobby supermarkets to ensure that people with sight loss – although she mentioned no other groups of disabled people – are considered a priority group who are able to access online shopping and home deliveries.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) said on 2 April that it was “working quickly to support people who do not fall into the category of being clinically vulnerable, but still need help getting essential food supplies”.
It told Disability News Service a week later that it was “working hard to support the people who do not fall into the category of being clinically vulnerable, but still need help getting essential food and supplies” and was “quickly identifying who these people are and speaking directly to food retailers and volunteer groups to prioritise them for extra help or home deliveries”.
But DEFRA has been unable this week to say how many people it believes are in this group; how many of them it had been able to identify; how it was identifying them; what disabled people need to do to let the government know they need assistance with food; and whether DEFRA is confident that it will be able to provide support to all those disabled people who need it.
The Welsh government has also been unable to provide anything more than sketchy details about the measures it is taking.
A spokesperson for the Welsh government said: “We know there are many disabled people, and people with serious health conditions, who are not at the highest risk of COVID-19 and are not shielded.
“While we understand such people are in need of support, we also know supermarkets only have limited capacity to provide priority slots, and those slots have to be prioritised to those who are shielded.
“We ask that non-shielded vulnerable people seek support from family, friends or other support groups during this time.
“Some supermarkets have put measures in place to help carers, volunteers and those shopping for others.
“We are also working with WLGA [the Welsh Local Government Association] and WCVA [the Wales Council for Voluntary Action] to ensure local authorities and County Voluntary Councils are able to offer help to those without support.”
But the Welsh government has declined to provide any further details of how it will ensure the safety of those disabled people who need help securing essential food and supplies during the crisis.
WCVA declined to comment on the Welsh government’s performance or whether it had heard concerns itself about disabled people who had been unable to secure food and groceries.
But a WCVA spokesperson said it was working with local partners and local authorities to help co-ordinate volunteer support, connecting voluntary and community groups that can provide food and other support with the volunteers who can deliver it.
He said: “We would encourage those with concerns to get in touch with the local authority contact centre in the first place, to see what their local authority is already planning/delivering.
“They may well be referred to their local County Voluntary Council (CVC) for their knowledge of local voluntary sector services, or to a group signed up through the Volunteering Wales website.”
He added: “Infoengine [run by CVCs and WCVA] and Dewis [run by local authorities] provide up-to-date information about statutory and voluntary services, some of which are aimed at particular target groups in the community, including disabled people.
“Informal community groups are developing in many areas in response to the present situation and are providing valuable low-level neighbourly support. CVCs are likely to be aware of these also.”
WLGA did not respond to a request for a comment.
No-one from Disability Wales was available to comment by noon today (Thursday).
*DNS has requested an interview with the new shadow minister for disabled people
**Links to sources of information and support during the coronavirus pandemic include the following:
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