Disabled people’s organisations are calling on the government to take urgent action to protect people in England who are clinically vulnerable to COVID-19, and those who cannot be vaccinated against the virus for medical reasons.
Disability Rights UK and Inclusion London have both spoken out after the government announced on Sunday that it was increasing the COVID-19 alert level from three to four in England, as a result of increasing concerns about the spread of the Omicron variant of the virus.
The package of government measures that previously supported the 3.8 million people considered to be clinically extremely vulnerable (CEV) to the virus ended on 1 April as the spread of coronavirus appeared to be under control.
CEV people were instead advised to take measures to manage their own risks.
This meant that those shielding were no longer eligible to receive statutory sick pay or employment and support allowance on the grounds of being advised to shield, while they were also told that if they could not work from home, they should attend their workplaces.
CEV pupils and students were advised to return to their schools, colleges and universities from 1 April, and supermarkets ended priority access to delivery slots for those who were shielding on 21 June.
Since 19 July, the government’s guidance to CEV people has been to follow the same advice as the rest of the population, while “potentially thinking about extra precautions you could take to reduce your chance of catching COVID-19” and following any advice given by a healthcare specialist.
The shielding programme – and its associated guidance – closed officially in September.
But DR UK says the level of risk faced by those who are clinically vulnerable, and those who cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons, is so high that health and social care secretary Sajid Javid should “urgently review” these decisions.
Many of those who cannot have the vaccine for medical reasons will not be included in the CEV group, but DR UK believes they should also benefit from protective measures.
Among the measures DR UK believes should be introduced – all of which should also apply to those unable to be vaccinated – is for the NHS to be told to provide all CEV people with personalised medical advice and support, for councils to provide them with personalised support, and for arrangements for food and medicine delivery to CEV people to be reintroduced.
DR UK is also asking for the necessary employment protection and sick pay to ensure that CEV workers can shield and not attend the workplace, and for a helpline to be set up so CEV people can be signposted to health and community support.
Inclusion London has issued a similar demand for government action.
It has called on the government to reinstate packages of food and medical support for those who are CEV, to increase statutory sick pay to the equivalent of a full-time living wage rate, and to strengthen employees’ protections, particularly in relation to working from home, redundancy and dismissal.
It has also called for emergency measures and “significant additional emergency funding” to ensure that care and support packages can be maintained “in the face of what is likely to be huge rates of support worker absence”.
And it has called for national emergency funding for Deaf and disabled people’s organisations across the country, so they can continue to provide essential peer support, information and advocacy to Deaf and disabled people.
Kamran Mallick, DR UK’s chief executive, said: “We cannot stress enough how abandoned clinically vulnerable people feel and the urgent need to put effective protection and support measures in place.
“When all support was removed from 3.8 million clinically extremely vulnerable people earlier this year, it was done within the context of the virus being in retreat, due to the successful roll out of the vaccination programme.
“CEV people were asked to manage their own risk.
“The evidence shows that this approach is no longer tenable, due to the greatly increased chance of being infected by the omicron strain of the virus.
“In addition, there is a significant minority of people with chronic illness unable to minimise the impact of the virus by taking up vaccinations, due to the devastating consequences the jab has on their health.
“We are asking the secretary of state to urgently review his decision not to introduce new measures to protect and support people who are clinically vulnerable to COVID-19.”
Tracey Lazard, chief executive of Inclusion London, said: “Disabled people are once again being overlooked and disregarded by the government in this latest response to the pandemic.
“The government must act on the clear lessons from last year, learnt at such a painful cost to our communities.”
The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) said guidance was kept under review.
And it said that, from today (Thursday), antivirals and other treatments that can be administered within the community will be offered to those at highest risk if they test positive for COVID-19.
But it had declined by noon today (Thursday) to comment on the call from DR UK and Inclusion London for non-medical measures to be taken for those who are CEV.
A DHSC spokesperson said in a statement: “We encourage those who remain at higher risk to discuss any necessary precautions with their specialist as part of their routine care.
“Immunocompromised individuals are a priority cohort for therapeutic treatments, such as monoclonal antibody therapies and novel antivirals which reduce the risk of hospitalisations and deaths.”
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