The UK government appears to have bowed to months of pressure from disabled campaigners and allies, after quietly revealing that it is considering taking “further action” to protect disabled people from the pandemic.
It comes alongside an admission that disabled people have been “disproportionately impacted” by COVID-19, alongside older people and those from minority ethnic backgrounds.
It appears to be the first admission from the UK government that disabled people – rather than those with certain underlying health conditions – have been disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 crisis and that it needs to do more to protect them.
There have been months of concerns raised about this disproportionate impact, with official figures showing that nearly 60 per cent of COVID-related deaths – and possibly more – were of disabled people.
This led to claims that the UK government had violated its obligation to protect disabled people’s right to life, and repeated calls for it to take action to address the disproportionate impact, as well as its repeated breaches of other disability rights during the pandemic.
In June, a Public Health England review of COVID-19 health inequalities analysed factors such as deprivation, ethnicity, occupation and health conditions but did not include a single mention of disabled people or disability.
And the government’s Disability Unit, led by the minister for disabled people, Justin Tomlinson, has remained almost completely silent during the pandemic, even though it was set up last year to “break down the barriers faced by disabled people”.
Last month, Disability News Service (DNS) reported that the unit had posted just one new announcement on its website in the previous six months.
Now, in its new COVID-19 Winter Plan – which describes how ministers will manage the end of the latest national lockdown on 2 December, and the steps they will take “to help bring life back to normal by Spring” – the government has revealed that it is “considering what further action is needed to protect disabled people”.
The admission – in a short paragraph on page 87 – comes in a section on “disproportionately impacted groups”.
The government had not provided further details of what options for further action it is considering by noon today (Thursday).
But the document adds: “It is especially important that the needs of people with characteristics that could put them at greater risk are fully considered and that the fullest efforts are made to engage them in the roll-out of rapid testing and vaccines.”
Only last week, DNS reported how “absolutely shocking” new figures showed that younger people with learning difficulties in England were more than 30 times more likely to die from coronavirus than non-disabled people of the same age.
Leading campaigners with learning difficulties said those figures provided further evidence of why many younger disabled people should be higher on the list of priorities for a coronavirus vaccine when one becomes available.
Furious disabled activists had questioned the “sickening” and “utterly bizarre” decision to put disabled people seen as extremely vulnerable to coronavirus far down the queue for a life-saving vaccine.
And yesterday (Wednesday), the crossbench disabled peer Baroness [Jane] Campbell, who herself is seen as clinically extremely vulnerable to the virus and has been shielding since March, asked a minister to justify that decision.
She said she was “concerned to learn that those under 65 in the clinically high-risk categories have been given a lower priority for the vaccine, knowing that 59 per cent of people who have died from the coronavirus have been high-risk disabled people”.
She also asked for the evidence that decision was based on.
Baroness Campbell (pictured in 2019) highlighted again the concerns over the government’s apparent failure to protect disabled people during the pandemic, telling the minister: “Disabled people tell me that they have not felt shielded or protected throughout this pandemic, and this priority decision seems to confirm that belief.”
Lord Bethell, a junior health and social care minister, told her that the list of priorities for receiving a vaccine was only “interim advice” and may change when the government received the final data on how the various vaccines work.
He said a review was taking place “to see whether clinical factors should play a greater role in prioritisation”.
The new winter plan also says that the government is working to “improve the data” to help build a clearer picture of how COVID-19 “affects people with specific characteristics”.
And it says the government is spending “up to £25 million” to establish a network of “community champions” to “help those most at risk and hard-to-reach communities access and adhere to the latest Government COVID-19 guidance, and to give these people a greater voice in public health”.
The government had failed by noon today to provide further details on these measures and how they would support disabled people.
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