The government’s decision to ease COVID regulations is dangerous, populist and irresponsible, while ministers have forgotten those people who have spent much of the pandemic shielding from the virus, say disabled campaigners.
There has been widespread alarm this week after the prime minister and the health and social care secretary announced that the so-called “Plan B” protective measures in England* – introduced last month to slow the spread of the Omicron variant – would end today (Thursday).
This means an end to criminal sanctions for those who fail to wear masks in public places, while the government is no longer asking people to work from home if they can.
Ministers have also ended the requirement for face coverings to be worn in classrooms.
As well as concern at the easing of the restrictions, there was anger and frustration at the confusion over guidance for those seen as clinically extremely vulnerable (CEV) to coronavirus.
Many of those who have been told they are CEV have now spent nearly two years taking careful precautions to protect themselves, but say they were not told about new advice published on 24 December, or that that guidance remains in place despite the latest announcement.
Disability News Service has seen an email to the disabled Liberal Democrat peer Baroness [Sal] Brinton from the office of the junior health and social care minister Lord Kamall, which confirms that the 24 December guidance remains in place.
Baroness Brinton, who herself is CEV, has raised concerns about the failure to publicise the guidance, and even had to correct the Conservative leader of the House of Lords, Baroness Evans, after she claimed last week that there was now no such guidance in place.
Among those speaking out this week was disabled campaigner Doug Paulley, who is CEV and has been seriously ill with COVID-19 over the last 10 days.
The virus outbreak has infected 11 of the residents and many of the staff in the Leonard Cheshire care home where he lives in Yorkshire.
He says there are already severe pressures on public services, including delays with providing results of PCR tests, and three GPs off sick at his local surgery.
Although he has not had to be admitted to hospital and intensive care, he has been “proper ill, gasping for breath”, although he is now recovering.
He said: “I don’t have a choice of saying I want everybody else to wear masks so I can go out, I can only choose whether I wear one or not.”
Paulley said the government’s decision to ease the rules was “bloody dangerous and irresponsible and populist, and people will suffer and die because of it, and disabled people disproportionately so in my opinion”.
Even so, he said, it was “nothing compared to the way they just openly threw disabled people, and especially care home residents, to the dogs back when this all started.
“It’s a remnant of that same attitude, and it’s not just disabled people in care homes either.
“Nobody wants to have restrictions, it is an imposition on our rights, but it’s a bloody necessary one for the sake of people’s suffering and life.”
Another prominent disabled campaigner, Fleur Perry, who has had to shield through the pandemic, said it was “pointless” to ask those who were CEV to socially distance if the government was not asking other people to do so.
She said: “Asking one person to social distance is like asking one hand to clap – it doesn’t work.
“You need everyone around you in a public space to co-operate in order to successfully social distance.
“I don’t understand why we’re also expected to know that we need to follow Plan B without being informed.”
She added: “I’ve heard from many other shielders that they have felt ‘forgotten’ at various points during the pandemic.
“This time, there is no sign that we were remembered at all until after [last week’s] announcement was made.
“We need clear, workable guidance from the government, and we need our safety to be considered.
“Removing layers of protection when there’s more than 80,000 cases per day is gutting.
“I was looking forward to being able to go to visit friends and family as soon as the weather warms slightly.
“Each time a layer of protection is removed, the things I want to safely do move further away.
“The government needs to consult with disabled people and consider our needs when thinking about policy changes that affect our safety and way of life, not remember us after-the-fact. They also have a legal duty to do so: the public sector equality duty.”
Among issues being raised by Perry and some of her CEV friends are the failure to send them priority PCR tests, which they need to access anti-viral medication; problems with accessing the anti-virals; CEV people being forced back into unsafe workplaces; the risks being faced by CEV children, parents and teachers; and concerns over access to lateral flow tests and personal protective equipment for personal assistants.
Fazilet Hadi, head of policy at Disability Rights UK (DR UK), said the government’s announcement would be seen by those who are CEV or cannot have the vaccination as “another sign that the government has abandoned them”.
She said: “Despite disabled people accounting for at least 60 per cent of all COVID-related death so far, the government is doing nothing to protect and support people at greater risk of serious illness.
“We are particularly concerned that these rule changes will negatively affect working-age people who will be forced to return to work.”
DR UK’s policy and campaigns officer, Dan White, added: “The government needs to stop washing their hands of people who are still at severe risk from COVID.
“It must recognise that there are still disabled people who are clinically extremely vulnerable or who cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons who still need a strong ring of protection.
“It must reinstate employment protections, financial support, and provision for essential supplies such as food and medicine.
“The current guidance changes too often, is causing constant confusion and is adding un-needed stress to individuals’ lives.”
Dr Sarabajaya Kumar, co-founder of the disability caucus of the Women’s Equality Party, who has been shielding for the last two years, said CEV people were now “expected to take individual responsibility to protect ourselves, without a policy in place to support our actions”.
She said: “Rather than keeping the work from home advice in place, we are expected to speak to our employers ‘about what temporary arrangements they can make to reduce your risk’.
“I understand that we need to open up the economy, and I too very much look forward to the day I can return to working with colleagues in person and get out and about to shop, visit the theatre, art galleries, museums, etc, and socialise safely, but I do not understand why the government is not continuing to protect those of us who are most at risk in the meantime.
“Even if we are able to negotiate with our employers to continue to work from home, my family members (who also have underlying conditions) are not allowed to do so, putting me at huge risk each day they go to work or university, as protective measures are no longer required in public places, workplaces or on public transport.
“As we live together, we are wondering how to best to continue to protect me.”
She pointed out that about 60 per cent of deaths from COVID-19 are of disabled people, many of whom were CEV, while working-age disabled women with higher support needs, like her, were 91 per cent more likely to have died from COVID-19 than non-disabled women of the same age, even after allowing for factors such as underlying health conditions, and whether they lived in poverty, or in a care home.
She said: “I would like government to review policy in relation to this group of people, as the current policy position puts us at even greater risk.
“We are not, nor should we be, collateral damage.”
Meanwhile, the government this morning released new guidance that further eases COVID restrictions in adult social care.
Picture: Dr Sarabajaya Kumar and fellow disabled activists from the Women’s Equality Party protesting about the government’s pandemic failings in Parliament Square last summer
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