Disabled campaigners have warned the government that it is too soon, and too dangerous, to resume face-to-face assessments for disability benefit claimants.
They spoke out after the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) announced this week that face-to-face work capability assessments (WCAs) and assessments for personal independence payment (PIP) will resume next month (May).
Face-to-face assessments for industrial injuries disablement benefit (IIDB) claimants in England will resume even earlier, on 12 April.
This will initially be for those who DWP has been unable to assess on paper, or by telephone or video assessments.
All face-to-face assessments have been suspended since 17 March 2020 because of the pandemic.
The move came as DWP announced that it was now rolling out the use of video assessments across England, Scotland and Wales, following trials that began last year.
It makes it clear that even disabled people considered clinically extremely vulnerable to the virus will not be exempt from attending, if asked to do so.
It also says that the healthcare professional carrying out the assessment should stay two metres away from the claimant and not attempt any physical contact for WCAs and PIP assessments.
Some IIDB assessments may involve a physical examination, but in those cases the assessor will wear extra protective equipment.
The guidance says that the room should be cleaned after each assessment.
But disabled campaigners reacted with concern to the DWP announcement.
Paula Peters, a member of the national steering group of Disabled People Against Cuts, said the resumption of face-to-face assessments “will cause further fear and dread for disabled people”.
She said: “Over four million disabled people have been shielding for over a year during the course of the pandemic and many have not had their full course of coronavirus vaccinations.”
She said they will now be expected by DWP “to travel miles to attend the inhumane and degrading assessments for disability benefits, putting themselves at risk.
“We are still in the middle of a pandemic; yet the DWP demonstrates yet again with the resumption of face-to-face assessments it doesn’t care about the distress this will cause disabled people or the safety and risk implications.”
She said the greatest loss of life during the pandemic had been of disabled people, who account for nearly three-fifths of all deaths.
Fazilet Hadi, head of policy at Disability Rights UK (DR UK), also said it was too soon to resume mandatory face-to-face assessments.
She said: “We are still in the midst of a pandemic with the prime minister urging us to be cautious and with the government setting out gradual steps towards unlocking society.
“This is not the time to re-introduce mandatory face-to-face assessments.
“The DWP should at least again suspend its rule on removing benefit if someone cannot show ‘good cause’ for not attending a medical assessment.
“Phone and video assessments have worked well for many during lockdown, yet the DWP fails to build on this learning.
“People should be able to select their preferred assessment method, in line with the reasonable adjustment provisions of the Equality Act.”
She added: “We would ask that the forthcoming green paper on welfare reform recommends more disability inclusive practice across the benefits system.”
Vicky Foxcroft, Labour’s shadow minister for disabled people, who herself has shielded during the pandemic, said she also believed it was too soon to resume face-to-face assessments.
She said: “With the COVID-19 pandemic still ongoing, the government need to ensure no disabled person or people with health conditions are forced to attend an unsafe face-to-face assessment.
“The government must learn the lessons of the past year and ensure a variety of assessments methods are made permanent, to give disabled people more choice over how they engage with the department.”
Fran Springfield, co-chair of Chronic Illness Inclusion, a new disabled people’s organisation, said that restarting face-to-face assessments was “inherently unsafe”.
She said: “Whilst some disabled people will stop shielding shortly, many of us will still continue to take extra precautions and will be remaining at home.
“Travelling on public transport still does not feel safe as nobody is ensuring that masks are still worn and few people will be able to afford a cab to an assessment centre.
“Unless it’s a black cab there is no protection for us or the cabbie.”
She said there was “no obvious reason not to continue the present paper-based assessments”.
Springfield added: “Forcing disabled people, many of whom are clinically extremely vulnerable, to attend a face-to-face assessment is putting us at risk, not only of catching COVID but of being further traumatised by having to undergo these unnecessary interviews.”
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