Disabled activists have warned of the “chilling” impact on disabled workers of the government’s decision to end shielding from the end of this month.
The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) last week began sending letters to those on the shielded patients list – those considered to be clinically extremely vulnerable (CEV) to the virus – telling them they will no longer be advised to shield from 1 April.
But the move will put disabled workers at “real risk” at a time when the pandemic is still not under control, a year after the first lockdown was introduced, disabled activists have warned.
It will mean that the 3.8 million people on the shielded patients list will no longer be eligible to receive statutory sick pay (SSP) or employment and support allowance (ESA) on the grounds of being advised to shield.
Although everyone is still being told to continue to work from home where possible, DHSC has told shielders that if they cannot work from home, they should attend their workplaces from 1 April.
CEV pupils and students are also being advised to return to their schools, colleges and universities from 1 April.
Supermarkets will continue to provide priority access to delivery slots for shielders until 21 June, DHSC said.
Despite ending its shielding protections, DHSC said it was still important that shielders “continue to keep the number of social interactions that you have low and try to reduce the amount of time you spend in settings where you are unable to maintain social distancing”.
More than nine in 10 CEV people have now been vaccinated, but only with their first dose.
Ellen Clifford, a member of the national steering group of Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC), said: “I find it chilling to think that from 31 March there will be no legal protections for disabled workers on the CEV list in situations where their employers are forcing them back into workplaces.
“These are people most at risk of contracting COVID, most at risk of serious and long-term cases of COVID and among those most likely to be denied life-saving treatment in situations where the NHS is over-stretched.
“The government says that nine out of 10 of those on the CEV list have had the first vaccine but that means that one out of ten haven’t, while none of them are fully protected from catching coronavirus; the chances for each person have just been reduced.”
Clifford, whose book examining the impact of a decade of government austerity measures, The War on Disabled People, was published last year, added: “We have been warned by the government’s scientific advisors of a third wave and that there are at least another 30,000 deaths to come.
“I am literally shuddering when I think of what proportion of these are going to be disabled workers who needed to shield but were effectively sent to their deaths by a decision made by government that their lives were dispensable.
“It would be perfectly straightforward to take less of a blanket approach to the guidance and to advise that everyone on the CEV list – which in itself is actually too narrow – should shield until a few weeks after their second vaccine.
“The government have decided against this.”
Dave Allan, speaking on behalf of the TUC and as the TUC General Council member for disabled workers, said it was “deeply irresponsible” of the government to change its advice to all shielders, regardless of their vaccine status.
He said this “puts the lives of disabled workers at even greater risk”.
He called on the government to rethink its decision on shielding, and to offer a guarantee that no shielding worker should be forced to return to workplaces outside their home, with a guaranteed right to furlough for CEV workers.
Allan said: “Right now there are hundreds of thousands of workers in the shielding group who are anxious about being forced into a workplace that will increase their risk of infection with potentially deadly consequences.
“Setting an arbitrary date of 1 April to send workers back does not match with the science-based approach set out in the [government’s] roadmap.
“I advise these workers to speak to their union rep, who can help ensure their exposure is minimised.”
Ann Galpin, co-chair of the TUC disabled workers’ committee, added: “COVID has significantly worsened life and outcomes for disabled people – and many businesses.
“The need to shield is not going to disappear just because the government wants to stop supporting those people who are at high risk if they contract COVID.
“Workers who need to shield should not have to choose between their life and livelihood.”
She said the government needed to review its approach and issue new guidance which “ensures all employers know they cannot force these workers to work outside their home and which reminds them to fulfil their obligations to provide reasonable adjustments to support disabled workers to remain in their jobs (or find a suitable alternative role)”.
Another to raise serious concerns about the move this week was Elane Heffernan, from the University and College Union (UCU).
Earlier this month, she told the TUC Disabled Workers’ Conference that, for disabled workers, the pandemic had “deepened the prejudice and inequality that we face at work every day”.
She said this week that the end of shielding puts disabled workers and CEV relatives “at real risk at a time when we have already endured so many unnecessary deaths in our community”.
She said: “It is not good enough to end shielding, to deny SSP and end priority slots for delivery of food and necessities and instead to rely on vaccinations as the sole means of safety, not least because some disabled people are not able to take the vaccine and many younger disabled people are still awaiting a first dose.”
She said far too many universities and colleges do not have entirely COVID-secure workspaces.
UCU is campaigning for on-line learning to remain the default position, while disabled members are pushing for a right to work from home at all colleges and universities and a continuation of paid time off where this is not possible, and for the right to work from home to become a permanent right.
Heffernan said: “While some universities and colleges will allow working at home, many will not.
“The situation in prison education is especially difficult, because of the continuing difficulty in securing reasonable adjustments, and ending the right to shield creates a serious risk in this sector.
“There is also the risk that those who request to continue shielding become the first to be selected for any proposed redundancy.
“We will be resisting blanket returns that put disabled people at risk and are resisting compulsory redundancies and discriminatory redundancies.
“Our members in Birmingham City University are currently in dispute over safety [relating to COVID-19], including fighting for the right for those with family members in the CEV group to stay home.”
Dr Jenny Harries, deputy chief medical officer for England, said this week: “Shielding has always been an advisory measure to safeguard those who are the most clinically vulnerable in our communities.
“We recognise how difficult this period has been for so many and the impact it has had on people’s wellbeing.
“With the prevalence of the virus in the community continuing to decrease now is the right time for people to start thinking about easing up on these more rigid guidelines.
“If you have been shielding, we strongly urge you to take extra precautions following 1 April to keep yourself as safe as possible, such as continuing to observe social distancing and working from home.
“We will continue to monitor all of the evidence and adjust this advice should there be any changes in infection rates.”
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