The minister for disabled people has refused to apologise for as many as 24 breaches of disabled people’s rights – and probably even more – by the government in the 12 months since the first COVID-19 lockdown.
Disabled people’s organisations (DPOs) and activists this week described the list as “shocking” and said that each example represented a “profound injustice done to disabled people by the UK government”.
It provides fresh fuel for calls for an independent inquiry into the disproportionate number of deaths of disabled people during the pandemic.
The list includes the government’s decision – early in the pandemic – to discharge hospital patients into care homes without testing them for COVID-19, causing the loss of thousands of lives of disabled and older people.
This was later mirrored by the decision of the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) to draw up a strategy that allows patients infected with COVID to be discharged from hospitals into residential homes, as part of a so-called “safe discharge” scheme regulated by the Care Quality Commission.
The list also includes the decision to place those disabled people seen as clinically extremely vulnerable to the virus as low as sixth on the initial list of priority groups to be vaccinated.
There have also been several examples of government delays in releasing life-saving guidance, such as taking five months to produce advice to protect disabled people in supported living services.
Another breach of rights was the repeated refusal to extend the £20-a-week benefit increase handed to those on universal credit to disabled people on employment and support allowance (ESA) and other “legacy” benefits.
Another saw the minister for disabled people, Justin Tomlinson, fail to carry out meaningful engagement with DPOs during the early months of the pandemic, while his Disability Unit failed to provide updates on its website for months at the height of the pandemic, while thousands of disabled people were dying from COVID-19.
There is also growing evidence – some of it revealed at this month’s TUC Disabled Workers’ Conference – of government departments refusing to allow many disabled staff to work from home during the crisis, forcing them to attend potentially infectious workplaces, and refusing other reasonable adjustments.
Another major breach of disabled people’s rights came with the government’s repeated failure to provide vital COVID-related information to Deaf and disabled people in an accessible format, including the refusal to provide an on-stage British Sign Language interpreter at televised ministerial briefings.
The list* – compiled by Disability News Service (DNS), and building on an earlier version published last July – is likely to underestimate the true scale of breaches of disabled people’s rights during the pandemic, and only attempts to list those directly attributable to the UK government.
Ellen Clifford, a member of the national steering group of Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC), said that each breach “represents a profound injustice done to disabled people by the UK government”.
She said: “Despite the hardships and tragedies of austerity and welfare reform, at no point in my lifetime has it been so clear as it has become through this pandemic, how dispensable disabled people’s lives are held to be and how quickly and easily our rights can be cast aside when it becomes politically expedient to those in power.”
Clifford said disabled people needed to add their voices to calls for the prime minister to honour his promise to hold a public inquiry into the government’s handling of the pandemic, “and to be clear and loud in our expectation that this include a thorough investigation into breaches of disabled people’s rights and discrimination”.
Professor Peter Beresford, co-chair of the disabled people’s and service-user network Shaping Our Lives, said the list was “shocking in its own right”.
He said: “But what is no less shocking is that it is part of a much bigger generalised failure on the prime minister’s part which seems to have no come-back.
“This is catastrophe in plain sight and yet there are no signs of Johnson being held to account.”
He said that those “undoubtedly suffering the worst in this failure are again disabled people.
“There is something rotten in the state of our politics, victimising some of the most powerless of our people.”
Fazilet Hadi, head of policy for Disability Rights UK, said: “This list is not even exhaustive when it comes to the ways in which the government has failed disabled people during the pandemic.
“As our bodies have piled up, so too have the mistakes which have led, not just to a diminishing in the quality of our lives, but to the loss of our lives.
“The vast majority of deaths during this pandemic have been disabled people’s. This virus has also increased our numbers as a demographic.
“All of these points, and more, must be addressed in an Inquiry.
“Lessons must be learned, and moreover, action must be taken, to ensure that we never again have to face such stark, manufactured, inequality – inequality which has led to the greatest loss of disabled people’s lives since World War Two.”
Jumoke Abdullahi, communications and media officer at Inclusion London, said: “It has been a year since the first UK lockdown during the COVID-19 pandemic and disabled people are still being disproportionately impacted.
“Considering that nearly 60 per cent of all COVID related deaths were disabled people, we should expect and are demanding more.
“However, there continue to be significant breaches of disabled people’s rights by the government.”
She added: “We demand that the government engage meaningfully with Deaf and disabled people’s organisations; it is needed now more than ever.”
Mark Harrison, a member of the Reclaiming Our Futures Alliance steering group, said: “The most disturbing thing about the government response to COVID-19 and disabled people is that every measure taken has disproportionately impacted on us in a negative way.
“The litany of policy and service failures illustrates that, for this government, disabled people are expendable.”
Mark Williams, founder of the grassroots disabled people’s organisation Bristol Reclaiming Independent Living (BRIL), said the government’s failure to produce accessible and timely information and guidance had put disabled people at risk of harm, and that “all the way through the pandemic disabled people have been an afterthought for the government”.
A BRIL spokesperson added: “The inequality and human rights breaches disabled people already face have only increased under the government’s response to COVID.”
He said that 10 years of cuts and privatisation had left the mental health, social care, education and voluntary sectors “dangerously unprepared”.
He said: “Disabled people of all ages have told us about being ignored, forgotten and unvalued by the current government.
“One BRIL member said: ‘We will not forget. We cannot let this happen again.’”
Dorothy Gould, from the new user-led, rights-based organisation Liberation**, said: “During this last year, it has seemed clearer than ever that disabled people are thought of as second-class citizens.
“The government has not kept disabled people safe during the COVID pandemic – I’ve been shocked and hugely distressed by the high numbers of deaths among disabled people, still more so because government actions have actually contributed to these.”
She said the government’s “continued focus on maintaining large numbers of institutions” had “fed into this tragedy”, while the government had “failed yet again to involve user-led organisations in its planning”.
Claire Glasman, from WinVisible, which supports and campaigns for disabled women, said: “The biggest crime of the UK government has been the breach of the right to life of older and disabled people, mostly women, mainly in care homes where at least 30,000 residents have died attributed to COVID.
“After a year of campaigning, disabled people have just won the restoration of Care Act rights (see separate story), but services should have been prioritised.
“Instead, the living conditions of thousands of disabled and older people supposed to be getting care, plummeted.”
The government’s Disability Unit refused this week to say how Tomlinson explained so many breaches of disabled people’s rights over the last year, or what action he planned to take to ensure such breaches did not happen again if there was another pandemic.
And it refused to apologise for the way the government had treated disabled people during the pandemic.
But a spokesperson for the Disability Unit said in a statement: “Throughout the pandemic the government has prioritised support for vulnerable people across the UK.
“We have ensured that disabled people have access to disability benefits, financial support, food, medicines, as well as the latest public health information and guidance.
“As we look to build back better, we will ensure that the day to day needs of every person will be at the heart of our policy making.
“That’s why our forthcoming National Strategy for Disabled People takes on an even greater significance as it will ensure disabled people have consistent access to the support that they need.”
*Here is the full list compiled by DNS:
1 Ministers failed to offer recipients of so-called legacy benefits such as ESA the same £20-a-week benefit increase given to those on universal credit.
2 The Department of Health and Social Care took five months to produce guidance that aims to protect disabled people in supported living services during the pandemic.
3 Justin Tomlinson, the minister for disabled people, failed to carry out meaningful engagement with disabled people’s organisations during the early months of the pandemic.
4 DHSC drew up a strategy that allowed patients infected with COVID to be discharged from hospitals into residential homes, as part of a so-called “safe discharge” scheme regulated by the Care Quality Commission.
5 DHSC released new guidance for those seen as clinically extremely vulnerable to the virus, less than 24 hours before the England-wide lockdown that began in November.
6 Disabled people seen as extremely vulnerable to coronavirus were initially only placed sixth in the priority list for a COVID-19 vaccine when it was first published in November.
7 After the priority list was altered, following pressure from disabled campaigners, there were further concerns that hundreds of thousands of disabled people with underlying health conditions were still not being treated as a priority for the vaccine.
8 The government failed to provide shielding information in an accessible format to visually-impaired people, as well as failing to provide other information and guidance in an accessible format, including for BSL-users.
9 Government departments, including the Ministry of Justice and the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), refused to allow many disabled staff to work from home, forcing them to go into work, and also refused other reasonable adjustments.
10 The emergency Coronavirus Act restricted rights to care and education and the rights of people in mental distress.
11 The first official statistics showing how many disabled people were dying with coronavirus were not published until late June, even though disabled people were being disproportionately affected by the pandemic.
12 Many disabled people who receive direct payments to pay for their personal assistants were unable to access personal protective equipment in the early months of the pandemic.
13 The government only published guidance to help people on direct payments more than five weeks after it had published guidance for the wider social care sector.
14 NHS England guidance on banning visitors to patients discriminated against disabled people with high support needs, while NHS England then failed to consult disabled people on a new version of the guidance.
15 The government’s test and trace programme was not accessible to many disabled people.
16 Direct payments users were given only two days to digest new government guidance if they wanted to take advantage of the government’s COVID-19 job scheme for their personal assistants.
17 Shielding MPs were not able to take part remotely in House of Commons debates.
18 Delays in testing social care staff led to thousands of disabled and older residents of care homes becoming infected with COVID-19 and losing their lives.
19 Hospital patients were discharged into care homes without being tested for COVID-19, causing the loss of thousands of lives.
20 The government’s Disability Unit stayed silent on its web page from 2 April to 20 July, while thousands of disabled people were dying from COVID-19.
21 DWP re-introduced benefit sanctions in early July, while millions of disabled people were shielding from the virus.
22 Social care workers were omitted from a list of workers exempt from having to self-isolate for two weeks after entering the country, ignoring the support needs of disabled people.
23 Health and social care secretary Matt Hancock refused to provide guidance that would ensure disabled people had the same rights as non-disabled people to life-sustaining treatment if they contracted COVID-19.
24 The government introduced lockdown guidance (PDF) that discriminated against many disabled people who needed to exercise more than once-a-day.
**Liberation can be contacted via email at: [email protected]
Picture: (From left to right) Fazilet Hadi, Ellen Clifford and Peter Beresford
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