Two ministers failed to respond when a disabled people’s organisation warned at the start of the pandemic that new government guidance would not be enough to protect care home residents, the Covid public inquiry has heard.
Disability Rights UK (DR UK) warned the ministers that the government’s advice “does not take full account of the ease of transmission of this virus within confined communities”.
The inquiry heard this week that Disability Rights UK (DR UK) had written on 16 March 2020 to Justin Tomlinson, the minister for disabled people, and social care minister Helen Whately, with a series of concerns.
They warned that the guidance for the care sector in England was not strong enough to protect disabled people in care homes or those disabled people receiving care and support in their own homes.
But a civil servant who responded to the letter – on behalf of Tomlinson and Whately – failed to respond to those concerns.
A month after the DR UK letter, reports began to emerge that thousands of care home residents in England had died after being infected with Covid.
By then, the government had decided to discharge 25,000 NHS patients into care homes without first testing them for coronavirus – in the period up to 15 April – a decision described three months later by the Commons public accounts committee as an “appalling error”.
Between 9 March and 17 May, around 5,900 care homes, more than a third of those across England, reported at least one outbreak of coronavirus.
Kamran Mallick, DR UK’s chief executive, told the inquiry on Monday that his organisation had been “extremely worried” about the impact of the government’s plans and told Tomlinson and Whately in the letter that they needed to do much more to stop the virus spreading.
DR UK also called for funding for isolation areas, advice to protect people giving and receiving care, and the training of new care workers, while also raising concerns about benefits.
When the government responded (PDF) to the letter – through a civil servant – the reply only discussed the benefits issue, other than promising the government would “do whatever it takes to support people affected by coronavirus” and would “keep the situation under review” and “keep Parliament updated”.
Mallick told the inquiry that the government’s response had been “incredibly disappointing”.
On the day he gave evidence this week, disabled people’s organisations (DPOs) and activists were outside the inquiry to protest about the government’s handling of the pandemic and its impact on older and disabled people.
Claire Glasman, from WinVisible, said it had been “absolutely shocking” to see how the government had “completely dismissed” Mallick’s letter.
Rensa Gaunt, from Inclusion London, told the protest: “Many of us died not because of COVID but because our essential care and treatment was withdrawn without consideration.
“Unless lessons are learned, this will happen again.”
Paula Peters, from DPAC, said that thousands of disabled people did not have the internet access they needed to request support during the pandemic “and they were abandoned, left to isolate at home.
“We want justice for every single disabled person and older person left to die as a result of government policies.”
Mallick had also told the inquiry how Tomlinson set up a new forum of DPOs, which he called the DPO Forum, in the summer of 2020.
But the forum only met twice, in July and August, with further monthly meetings that had been planned for the next six months never taking place.
The DPOs didn’t meet Tomlinson again until May 2022.
In a written statement to the inquiry, Mallick said: “As a result, there was no line of communication between the DPO Forum and central government for around 18 months, which left a vacuum at a time of national crisis when ongoing consultation and engagement was vital.”
He told the inquiry that he had suggested to Tomlinson that DR UK’s Our Voices group of DPOs could meet the Disability Unit every two months, but that offer was rejected.
Instead, the government suggested that a planned meeting of the forum due to take place in February 2021 would be replaced with individual and small group meetings with forum members, but Mallick said in his written statement: “This did not happen.”
His statement added: “From the statements, decisions and actions of the UK Government throughout the crisis, considerations relating to Disabled people appeared to be largely disregarded.
“There were no consultation arrangements which allowed for the views of Disabled people or our organisations to be properly heard before decisions were made.”
The inquiry also heard on Monday from two disabled academics, Professor Tom Shakespeare, professor of disability research at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and Professor Nick Watson, professor of disability research at the University of Glasgow and director of the university’s Centre for Disability Research.
They have produced a joint report for the inquiry on structural inequalities and disability.
The two academics told the inquiry that government decision-making and the measures it imposed had a direct impact on the day-to-day lives of disabled people, who were disproportionately affected by that impact.
Professor Shakespeare said disabled people were “an afterthought in many of the provisions”.
He said: “They were not centrally thought about, and therefore they were excluded from measures that were taken to protect the general population.”
He agreed that government measures such as social restrictions, lockdown orders, stay-at-home orders and social distancing did not appear to have paid any regard to disabled people.
Photograph by Paula Peters
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