A disabled people’s organisation (DPOs) has delivered a stark warning about the continuing seriousness of the Covid pandemic, and its impact on disabled people and DPOs.
Buckinghamshire Disability Service (BuDS) has been working to inform disabled people in Buckinghamshire and wider afield about the virus since the early weeks of the pandemic in 2020.
Andrew Clark, chair of BuDS, repeatedly stressed the seriousness of Covid and urged disabled people to ignore those who downplayed the risks posed by its latest mutations, when he spoke at an online conference on Friday.
He told the conference of DPOs, organised by disAbility Cornwall & Isles of Scilly, that the Office for National Statistics (ONS) had already found that long Covid had produced an extra 400,000 disabled people.
He criticised the government’s current policy of allowing the virus to circulate freely, and he said the scientific consensus was that this was allowing the virus to keep mutating and creating further waves.
He said: “It can’t be emphasised enough that this is going to keep on happening forever as long as the virus is allowed to circulate freely.
“Evolving, adapting, evading protection is what the virus does.”
Early in 2020, BuDS began to put together an expert group to provide advice about COVID-19 to disabled people in the county and wider afield, and it now includes professional statisticians from the NHS and the Office for National Statistics (ONS), and NHS clinicians, and has maintained close contact with the government’s Scientific Group for Emergencies (SAGE).
Clark said later that members had agreed to take part in the expert group because they “recognised the value of working with a non-party-political grassroots organisation which was trying to keep people safe”.
He told Disability News Service: “As the government increasingly-ignored scientific and medical evidence in its Covid policy-making, more and more insiders were willing to help organisations like BuDS which were committed to giving people the best possible factual information so that they could make informed decisions about their safety.
“We have the respect of our expert advisors and they have our respect, which is a relationship that works.”
So far, BuDS has published more than 250 articles about Covid on its website, as well as a weekly Covid risk assessment for disabled people in Buckinghamshire, and information videos.
There are more than a dozen staff and volunteers in its Covid team, with its Covid work funded through grants from the National Lottery-administered coronavirus fund and two local grant makers, including the Rothschild Foundation, one of its longer-term supporters.
Dedicated funding for the project has now dried up, which Clark said was “massively” holding back its ambitions, so the work is being supported from the charity’s general funds while it seeks further financial support for its ongoing Covid work.
Clark also told the conference that a small group of backbench MPs had been allowed to disproportionately influence the government’s COVID-19 policy in exchange for allowing the prime minister to stay in his position, and they had ensured public health policy was “very strongly skewed” towards abandoning control of the virus and allowing it to spread freely.
He said that BuDS’s own mid-range estimates suggested that there could be between 600,000 and 1.9 million more disabled people by 2025 than there would have been without Covid.
The most extreme-case scenario suggested as many as 4.1 million more disabled people by 2025.
Because many of these newly-disabled people will be younger than the current average age of disabled people, this is likely to lead to disability becoming “more mainstream”, he said.
Clark said this meant there would be a “very significant” increase in demand for the services of DPOs, of anything between five and 30 per cent.
He said: “If like us you’re a campaigning and awareness-raising DPO then you have a huge new area to work in.
“As being disabled becomes more mainstream, it brings more disabled people into the world of disability.
“A lot of the long-standing disability issues, like barriers to accessibility, attitude, hate crime, there’s the opportunity there to enliven that debate by applying it to a new group and applying it in new contexts.”
He added: “‘It gives a huge conceptual opportunity for DPOs to break out of a minority group mindset… and actually start looking at disabled people as a much more mainstream group in society, rather than a marginalised minority.”
But he also warned that the risks posed by the virus meant that DPOs needed to accept “some really hard realities”.
He warned that – short of a “miracle” in the development of the pandemic – DPOs that return to their pre-Covid working styles would be “effectively facing death by a thousand cuts”.
He said: “Over the next three years, a significant percentage, possibly all, of your staff and volunteers and service-users are going to catch COVID-19; many of them are going to catch it repeatedly.
“As a result of that, a significant percentage of your workforce and volunteers are going to drop out of your workforce.
“That means that finding people, recruiting people, is going to be a lot more difficult.
“Many of you, as we have at BuDS, have had to cope with the deaths of staff and volunteers and service-users and that is also going to be a recurring theme.”
He added: “COVID-19 is not going away, it’s not turning into a mild seasonal illness like influenza, it will remain for the foreseeable future a virus that is going to cause significant health [problems] and acute illness and long-term disability.”
But he said there was an “easy, affordable and practical alternative” to allowing Covid to “ruin your DPO”.
BuDS has adopted a “Covid Careful” strategy, taking scientifically-proven precautions that allow a “Covid-safe” office, with equipment to clean the air of the virus. Also, all staff and volunteers must wear FFP2 masks in risky situations.
He said: “It has not been difficult, it has not been expensive. We have changed the way we work to enable us to work just as effectively.
“As a DPO we intend to go on being a successful organisation which demonstrates in its own work how disabled people can live safely with Covid.”
He said BuDS was happy to share its work and Covid-related plans with other DPOs.
Friday’s conference also heard “harrowing” and “powerful” testimony from DPOs in Ukraine about the impact of the Russian invasion on disabled people in their country (see separate story).
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