The government has treated disabled people who are at particular risk from coronavirus as an afterthought as the country heads into lockdown, just as it did in the early weeks of the pandemic, say campaigners.
Disabled campaigners spoke out yesterday as new government guidance for those seen as clinically extremely vulnerable (CEV) to the virus was rushed out less than 24 hours before a new England-wide lockdown that began today (Thursday).
There are already concerns about the content of the guidance, its accessibility, its apparent focus on leaving support to over-stretched local authorities, and its reliance on supermarket deliveries to ensure that CEV people have access to food and other vital supplies.
There are also concerns about the financial support being offered to employed CEV people who are unable to work from home but are being advised to stay at home as much as possible and not attend their workplace.
The guidance says this group may be eligible for statutory sick pay, employment and support allowance, universal credit or the government’s job furlough scheme.
The new guidance “strongly” advises all those in the CEV group to stay at home at all times, unless for exercise or doctors’ appointments.
But it also says that those living with someone who is CEV can still attend work if they cannot work from home, and that children who live with someone who is CEV, but who are not CEV themselves, should still attend school.
Although the guidance suggests that local authorities will be responsible for ensuring access to support for those in the CEV group, the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) announced just £32 million in new government funding to help local councils provide that support over the next month.
It also announced a new online service which will allow CEV people to request priority access to supermarket delivery slots or tell their council they need help.
And DHSC said that people with chronic kidney disease (stage five) and those undergoing dialysis, as well as adults with Down’s syndrome, were being added to the CEV list by the NHS because of “new evidence about groups more likely to be at risk of serious illness from COVID-19”,
But disabled campaigners have raised significant concerns about the government’s apparent failure to treat those in the CEV group as anything more than an afterthought.
Svetlana Kotova, director of campaigns and justice at Inclusion London, told Disability News Service (DNS): “We welcome the guidance and the fact that the government is giving local authorities money for extra support for people who shield.
“However, we are yet to see how this support will work in practice.
“The timing of this guidance is irresponsibly late given the large increases in cases.
“Extra support should have been made available much earlier, since so many were already shielding. Yet again it feels like those who are shielding are an afterthought.”
She added: “It is also disappointing that the guidance does not mandate that shielders who work and cannot work from home must be put on furlough, so that they are not pushed into poverty by having to rely on statutory sick pay.
“It is also important to remember that many people really struggled to get on the government’s [CEV] list and it is really important to ensure those who shield, but are not on the list, get support as well.”
Fazilet Hadi, head of policy for Disability Rights UK, said: “New shielding guidance has been digitally issued with only hours to go before lockdown.
“Well over two million people will be affected by this guidance, but a significant number of those need it in a non-electronic format.
“Given the rapid increase of infection rates and the fact that new conditions have been added to the list, it feels like the people who need the most support have been left to the eleventh hour.”
She added: “All shielders are urged to shop online and to get medicines delivered.
“We know that some supermarkets have changed the parameters of their priority deliveries for shielders, including increasing the cost of minimum spend – something those on lower incomes will struggle with.
“And unless things are very different to April, new shielders could be waiting a long time for their online shopping.”
She also raised concerns about those in the CEV group who have children.
She said: “For shielders with children, the guidance says that children should continue to go to school, which seems strange advice, given the minimum contact shielders should have with the outside world.”
The grassroots disabled people’s organisation Bristol Reclaiming Independent Living (BRIL) said its members “were now beyond being disappointed with the government’s responses and communication”.
BRIL highlighted how the prime minister had been unable to answer a question from Labour’s Stella Creasy on Monday after she had asked about a mum who is CEV but works in a supermarket and cannot be furloughed, and “is worried that if she shields again, she will lose her job, but if she does not, she will lose her life”.
BRIL said the government had then issued guidance apparently without versions in easy read or British Sign Language, and apparently so far only available to those with online access.
It added: “Publishing something called ‘Guidance on shielding and protecting people who are clinically extremely vulnerable from COVID-19’, when people are now being told not to shield, but basically to ‘be careful’, is not only confusing but potentially dangerous.
“The government and Department of Health and Social Care are fully aware of their legal duties to produce accessible information, but seem to either have learned nothing over the last eight months, or are just indifferent to the needs of disabled people.”
The BRIL spokesperson added: “Many disabled and chronically ill people were ‘missed off’ the original clinically extremely vulnerable or shielding list despite being at high risk.
“As a result, many people struggled to get on priority shopping lists, get support with collecting medication and faced additional anxiety.
“BRIL are being contacted by people who are really worried about ‘lockdown 2’ and the impact it might have on them and their families.
“Once again, disabled people, chronically ill people, organisations and charities at breaking point have been left to explain what is happening and fill in the gaps. Frankly, it is not OK to do this.”
Artist-activist Jess Thom said on Twitter that the government’s guidance was “last minute and impractical”.
She said it failed to say anything about access to personal protective equipment for those who can’t socially distance, Access To Work, the use of the furlough scheme by personal assistants, “family members in high risk occupations” and “shielders in risky home situations”.
Fran Springfield, co-chair of Disability Labour, who has left her home only four times – for medical appointments – since the beginning of March, said she was “very unimpressed” with the new guidelines.
She said she feared many CEV people will not secure the support they need, either through friends, family or their local authority, to ensure they can obtain the supplies they need.
She said: “Once again, this cruel and heartless government has failed to provide any real support for those who are most clinically vulnerable.”
She said she also feared that “compassion fatigue” had set in among volunteers since the last lockdown.
She said: “With winter coming and too many people having to make a choice between eating and heating, leaving clinically vulnerable people with no support can only end in needless and preventable deaths.”
Kathy Bole, her fellow co-chair, said she believed the new guidance was being sent out too late.
She said: “The government is still sending out mixed messages and it will be those least able to cope who will suffer.”
Disabled campaigner Fleur Perry, who has been shielding since March, said: “I’m glad that action has been taken to make sure that support is available to shielders, at least on paper.
“Whether the language is clear enough and the response from local authorities and businesses will be appropriate remains to be seen.
“Nothing will personally change for me, as I have been continuing to shield for several months. I look forward to the figures going down.”
Meanwhile, the UK government’s failure to treat disabled people as a priority, despite nearly three-fifths of COVID-related deaths so far being of disabled people, appears to be mirrored across the House of Commons.
After the prime minister delivered his statement about the new lockdown on Monday, 100 MPs asked questions.
Of those 100 MPs, 18 asked questions about the government’s furlough employment scheme, but – according to DNS calculations – only three asked questions about the protection being offered to those who are CEV or previously shielded from the virus.
There were 53 mentions of the word “business” or “businesses” during the two hour-plus session, but not one mention of “disabled” people or “disability”, while apparently only one MP (Labour’s Barbara Keeley) asked about social care.
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