Disabled people’s organisations have expressed their “grave concern” over the government’s “utterly reckless” decision to lift most of the remaining COVID-19 rules in England from 19 July.
The move from “rules and regulations” to “guidance and good sense” – although final confirmation will not come until Monday (12 July) – has come despite the sharply rising number of new infections across the country.
From 19 July, all social distancing guidance will be removed in nearly all settings, including the legal requirement to wear face coverings.
Legal requirements on businesses will be removed, while limits on attendance at concerts, theatre and sports events will be lifted.
The new health and social care secretary, Sajid Javid, also said that it would “no longer be necessary to work from home”.
But disabled people’s organisations (DPOs) and disabled campaigners have this week told Disability News Service of their shock and anger at the decision to sweep away a series of public health restrictions.
They said the move was a gamble with disabled people’s lives.
Mark Baggley, manager of Choices and Rights Disability Coalition in Hull, said his organisation was “shocked at how all the safeguards are being swept away in one dramatic move”.
He said: “We know many disabled people have been very cautious since the lifting of some restrictions and many have yet to go out for any social occasion.
“It has been scientifically proven that the wearing of masks can prevent the virus being passed from one person to another and this has given many disabled people some reassurance when going out, whether for leisure or work.
“It appears that ‘following the science’ is no longer government policy and it is now ‘a certain amount of deaths is acceptable’.”
He added: “We all want life to return to some sort of normality, but it feels that the current way forward is a gamble where dice have been thrown and the risk is disabled people’s lives.”
Dominic Ellison, chief executive of West of England Centre for Inclusive Living, said the UK government was again “rushing headlong into a populist action without consideration to the implications for disabled people”.
He said: “Everyone, disabled people included, wants to see society open up once more, but to abandon all protections in time to meet an arbitrary date is utterly reckless.
“To make it a matter of personal choice whether individuals continue to take simple precautions to protect others removes all aspects of choice for many disabled and clinically vulnerable people – opening society up for non-disabled people and confining disabled people to their second-class shielded lives, without the legal protections and support for their shielding.”
He added: “We implore the government to make good on its previous commitments to engage with disabled people’s organisations in designing a safer and inclusive route out of lockdown as we reorganise to live with the continued threat of COVID-19.”
Svetlana Kotova, director of campaigns and justice at Inclusion London, said the government announcement had been “a shock” to many disabled people and would “put many people at risk, including millions of clinically vulnerable people”.
She said the lives of disabled people and other marginalised groups were being treated as “acceptable collateral damage in exchange for the roadmap to freedom”.
She said: “Although the vaccination programme has been successful, there are still many people, including younger disabled people, who have not been fully vaccinated.
“Lifting all restrictions, when COVID cases are rising so fast, will mean those younger disabled people will be forced to go back into work, others will be exposed to higher risks of contracting COVID-19 and many people will be exposed to the risk of long COVID.
“Some people medically cannot get vaccinated, others that are immunocompromised may not benefit as much as others from the available vaccination options.
“Lifting all restrictions without acknowledging extra difficulties some disabled people may face and providing support is wrong. It risks excluding and isolating people further.”
Professor Peter Beresford, co-chair of Shaping Our Lives, said the government’s response throughout the pandemic had been dominated by political concerns, the need to protect the economy and minimalizing state intervention, and had focused on “individual responsibility”.
He said: “The results of this approach have been cataclysmic in terms of death rate and suffering, public cost and economic loss.
“The latest decision to go ahead with the ending of all restrictions in the context of greatly rising infection rates and an incomplete vaccination programme denotes the same appalling thinking and the possibility of even more unquantifiable risks and damage.”
He added: “We are all, especially the most exposed, at the mercy of the most irresponsible political leaders in modern UK history.”
Kamran Mallick, chief executive of Disability Rights UK, said the government’s strategy “effectively reframes the disease as a post-vaccine slight sniffle”, when this was “unequivocally not the case”.
He said: “Disabled people, and people with compromised immune systems, those formerly known as clinically extremely vulnerable (CEV) people, will be faced with the choice of shielding under their own determination with no support, or facing increased risk of infection by going out in wider society.
“The government has once again dismissed the lives and voices of disabled people with plans for the reckless removing of safety measures.
“We have learnt that for the vast majority of people, it is no hardship to distance in public spaces, and to wear a mask, a practice which in many Asian countries is standard during non-pandemic times.
“These planned moves look and feel very much like people-pleasing, with no thought to those who stand to lose the most if they contract a virus which is still very much present in our midst.”
DR UK said it was seeking “urgent clarification” from the education secretary on how schools will be able to safeguard CEV pupils – particularly those in mainstream schools – without harming their education, after he announced that requiring entire classes to isolate if a single pupil in that class tests positive for COVID-19 would end from the start of the autumn term.
Linda Burnip, co-founder of Disabled People Against Cuts, said: “What some are calling ‘freedom day’ will for many disabled people mean many more months locked inside their homes, trying to remain safe from COVID.
“While the number of cases continues to rise steeply around the country, to suddenly end the lockdown and remove all safety precautions seems particularly stupid – even for the Tories.”
She said a key concern was for disabled workers who may now be forced back into workplaces with no protection in place.
The Disability Union, whose members are disabled people and carers, said the prime minister’s remarks and plans had done nothing to allay disabled people’s concerns, and it called on the government to engage in dialogue with disabled people and carers.
A union spokesperson said: “For too long, disabled people and carers have come to the conclusion that they must be collateral damage as the system seems to have disregarded their concerns and their voices.”
Disabled campaigner Esther Leighton said the government’s announcement would mean that “people at the most risk need to have even more limited lives, without the support of government schemes to support that, while those who are at least risk enjoy even more relaxation of the rules”.
She said: “It will particularly increase risk for people who need assistance from others.
“Mask exemptions have always been there, and must remain, but to say that others in public spaces don’t need to wear them puts some people’s discomfort above the freedom, well-being and health of others.
“It surprises me that anyone, who is not exempt, cares so much about masks that they are willing to increase risk to others, and the wider country, by not wearing one.”
Fellow disabled campaigner Natalya Dell was another to describe the government’s plans as “reckless”.
She said: “I am a deaf person who can’t lipread or hear masked speakers.
“I also struggle to wear a mask myself for long due to it affecting my vision, which worsens my vertigo.
“However, I have worn a mask inside buildings and minimised how often I leave my house for the last 16 months, because I don’t want to put myself or others at risk.
“I am tired of deaf people being used as an excuse for removing mask mandates by people who clearly haven’t cared and will continue not to care about the rights and needs of deaf and hard of hearing people in general.”
A spokesperson for Bristol Reclaiming Independent Living (BRIL) said that for Javid to say it would no longer be necessary to work from home and to remove legal requirements on businesses showed “a total disregard for the rights and wellbeing of disabled and chronically ill people and their families”.
The BRIL spokesperson added: “The government’s priorities are clearly not the safety or futures of our communities, but only the profit margins of private firms run by their friends.
“Javid admits that COVID cases will rise because of government actions, but they seem not to care.
“There is no thought about the implications for clinically vulnerable people, or the many thousands of newly disabled people with long COVID.”
Waltraud Pospischil, a BRIL member, said: “We need to make sure that after lifting restrictions, the UK recognises the contributions made from disabled people, those who need flexibility to work from home, and doesn’t put work- and pay-related pressure on those who would rather continue to shield, or avoid social contact as their choice to look after their health.”
Another BRIL member, Val Stansfield, said: “I am worried that 19 July is too much too soon.
“Although many are double- or single-jabbed, everyone can still catch or transmit it.
“We are told people will become ill and die, the Delta variant is rife, but we must learn to live with it. Live yes, but not give it free range to run riot.”
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