The government has decided not to draw up any plans to protect disabled people who rely on life-saving medical equipment in their own homes in the event of a power cut, after more than a year of delays and excuses.
The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) has finally admitted that it will be left up to individual disabled people and their “care teams” to draw up plans for “how they can prepare for and respond to loss of power to their home”.
The admission comes 15 months after Disability News Service (DNS) first started asking DHSC and other government departments what plans they had to protect people who rely on equipment such as ventilators, oxygen saturation monitors, dialysis machines and feeding pumps if there was a major blackout.
The disabled Liberal Democrat peer Baroness [Sal] Brinton, who first asked questions in parliament about such protection in October 2022, told DNS this week she was “absolutely horrified” by the government’s admission.
She said: “This is a merry-go-round of civil servants trying to push the problem onto somebody else. It’s finally landed back with disabled people.”
Fazilet Hadi, head of policy for Disability Rights UK, said: “The DHSC decision not to act to protect disabled people using health-related equipment in the event of a power cut is shocking.
“The Covid public inquiry showed the complete lack of government leadership, prioritisation and planning in respect of disabled people and it appears this is an ongoing situation.
“What the DHSC should do is to work with NHS England and social care leaders to publish guidance on the measures that should be put in place to protect disabled people when threatened by power cuts.”
Mark Baggley, manager of Choices and Rights Disability Coalition in Hull, who uses a ventilator at night while he’s sleeping, told DNS he was “shocked” by DHSC’s decision, and said he had “never felt more like a second-class citizen than in the last few years as a disabled person in the UK”.
He said: “It’s further proof that this government doesn’t care about disabled people and is not even interested in working with us to find solutions.
“It would seem to me that the government wants us to pay for our electricity (and more than the average customer, if we have to use lifesaving equipment), but then doesn’t feel we are entitled to any support if there is a crisis.
“Surely, the government’s role should be identifying possible solutions to the problem?”
Grant Shapps, who was secretary of state for business, energy and industrial strategy at the time, told MPs that the government had “very developed plans” for “that sort of thing”, when questioned on support plans for “vulnerable customers” in December 2022.
DHSC told DNS in the same month that it would not release any information on how it might protect people who rely on medical equipment at home because it “relates to policy options not taken forward at that time which Ministers may choose to pursue in future”.
Even after the 2022-23 winter was over, DHSC again refused to release any information because it “continues to relate to ongoing policy formulation and development”, and it concluded that “the public interest lies in favour of withholding this information”.
Now, following another DNS freedom of information request, DHSC has finally admitted that it decided last year not to draw up any guidance or develop a “specific plan” for “individuals who are reliant on at-home medical devices during a power outage”.
It told DNS: “We have concluded that, due to the specificity of individual needs and circumstances, individuals and their care teams are best placed to develop plans for how they can prepare for and respond to loss of power to their home.”
DHSC did share the “key messages” that it developed with NHS England which aim to advise patients, carers and clinical teams “how users of at-home medical devices can best prepare for a power outage”.
These messages were passed to the energy industry for use in their own advice for disabled customers.
But they make it clear that the advice that healthcare professionals and the energy industry should pass on to those whose lives depend on such equipment is no more than to make sure they “understand how the equipment works” and to draw up their own “clear plan of action” in case there is a power outage.
They also advise them to join their local priority services register, but DNS established in 2022 that this offers no protection in the event of a blackout other than the usual “extra help”, with the industry stressing that such customers would not be exempt from any blackouts and “should seek advice from their local health service provider”.
The “extra help” is only likely to mean a warning of an impending blackout, provision of heating and cooking facilities to some customers, and the signposting of customers in vulnerable situations to support, with one power company suggesting that this signposting would include being referred to the Red Cross for “hot meals and drinks”.
Hadi said: “Being on a priority service register is in no way a guarantee of safety.”
None of the integrated care boards approached by DNS 15 months ago were able to provide any indication that they had detailed plans drawn up.
Baggley suggested that healthcare providers could be funded to provide extra batteries or mini-generators to disabled people who rely on life-saving equipment, with this funding obtained “from some of the vast profits electricity-providers are making”.
Last week, DNS reported how UKPN, one of six distribution network operators (DNOs) responsible for maintaining the electricity network across Britain, was trialling a scheme that would loan a free portable battery pack to those relying on life-saving equipment who were signed up to the priority services register, if there was a power cut over four hours long.
But it refused to answer any questions about its plans, while the Energy Networks Association, whose members include UKPN, refused to say if the other five DNOs would run similar schemes for their disabled customers.
Picture: (From left to right) Fazilet Hadi, Mark Baggley and Baroness Brinton
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