Younger disabled people are at a far higher risk of dying from coronavirus than non-disabled people the same age, even after allowing for factors such as underlying health conditions, according to previously unreported official figures.
The Office for National Statistics (ONS) figures provide strong new evidence to persuade the government to rethink its “unforgivable” failure to ensure that younger disabled people are treated as a priority for the COVID-19 vaccination programme.
They also provide further evidence to support demands for an independent inquiry into the disproportionate deaths of disabled people during the pandemic.
Last month, widely-reported ONS figures on pandemic deaths of disabled people in England showed that disabled women with higher support needs (and aged between 30 and 100) were 40 per cent more likely to have died from COVID-19 than non-disabled women between 24 January and 20 November 2020.
This was after adjusting for factors such as underlying health conditions, or whether they lived in a care home or in a less affluent part of the country.
Disabled men with higher support needs – ONS describes them as “more-disabled”* – were 10 per cent more likely to die from COVID-19, after adjusting for all those factors.
But Disability News Service (DNS) has now confirmed with ONS that other data released last month** shows that younger disabled people were at an even higher risk of dying from COVID-19, in comparison with non-disabled people in the same age group.
The figures show that – after adjusting for health conditions and other factors – more-disabled women aged between 30 and 69 have been 60 per cent more likely to die from COVID-19 than non-disabled women in the same age group.
And more-disabled men aged between 30 and 69 have been 37 per cent more likely to die from COVID – after adjusting for health conditions and other factors – than non-disabled men in the same age group.
It has already been widely reported that disabled people have accounted for nearly three-fifths (59 per cent) of all COVID-related deaths during the pandemic, according to ONS.
Disabled campaigners hope the new figures will add to pressure on the government to ensure that younger disabled people are prioritised for the vaccine if they are not already viewed as either clinically extremely vulnerable (CEV) to the virus (those in priority group four) or at higher risk of serious illness and death from COVID-19 (those in priority group six).
They say that the much higher risks faced by younger disabled people, in comparison with non-disabled people of the same age, means they must be prioritised for the vaccine.
Last month’s figures also showed the even higher risk faced by people with learning difficulties, with both men and women with a “medically diagnosed learning disability” 70 per cent more likely to die from COVID-19 than people without such an impairment, once all the various factors, including underlying health conditions, had been adjusted for.
The data on the difference in risk faced by younger and older people with learning difficulties is much less clear, but the figures show that people with learning difficulties of all adult ages remain at a far higher risk of death from COVID-19 than people without learning difficulties.
Freya Papworth, co-chair of the Women’s Equality Party’s disability and long-term health conditions caucus, said she had been “stunned” to hear that the latest stage of the vaccine rollout was going to continue by age, rather than disability and health.
She said: “The facts speak for themselves – disabled people are at a significantly higher risk of death, and we have heard hundreds of reports of people with chronic illnesses suffering an increase in their symptoms for months – for some, nearly a year – on from catching COVID.
“Our #LeftOffTheList campaign continues to collect signatures and stories from those who have been left in limbo – some rightly listed as CEV but not on the priority list, others desperately trying to get their condition recognised as being at higher risk.”
She added: “Too many young women in our women’s equality caucus have been left self-shielding without support, and with the added burden of having to advocate for themselves to their overworked and exhausted GPs.
“I would like to understand why, when we know that these women are 60 per cent more likely to die than their non-disabled contemporaries, the government still believes it’s right to vaccinate by age?
“I will watch my perfectly healthy partner, who has had a grand total of five sick days in the 10 years I’ve known him, get vaccinated before me as I am in my 30s and he is in his 40s, even though I am at much greater risk. How is that ‘following the science’?”
Fazilet Hadi, head of policy for Disability Rights UK, said the new figures “support calls for an independent inquiry into the deaths of disabled people”.
She accused the government of “playing catch up with safeguarding disabled people’s lives throughout the pandemic”.
She said: “The joint committee on vaccination and immunisation has compounded this, with its largely age-based vaccination roll out.
“More proactive action needs to be taken by the NHS, to ensure that all at-risk disabled people are protected, especially as new variants continue to emerge.
“Many disabled people in vaccination group four who are clinically extremely vulnerable, and those in group six with underlying health conditions, still remain unvaccinated.
“In addition, there are younger at-risk disabled people not covered by groups four or six, who should be actively approached by GPs and included in group six.
“Disabled people who feel that they are at greater risk from coronavirus should consider approaching their GP, to ask for inclusion in group six.”
DNS asked the Department of Health and Social Care if the ONS figures showed there should be an adjustment in the vaccine rollout strategy to ensure that younger disabled people were further prioritised, but it had not responded by noon today (Thursday).
It is not known what might be causing the underlying extra risk of death faced by disabled people, once health conditions and other factors have been accounted for, but ONS suggested in last month’s release that it could at least partly be due to unfair practices or even discrimination within the NHS.
ONS told DNS last month that the evidence it had produced “warrants further investigation”, although three key regulators – the Care Quality Commission, the Equality and Human Rights Commission and the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence –refused to say if they would investigate the ONS concerns.
*ONS examines the impact on those who described themselves as disabled people in the 2011 census, either by saying they were “limited a little” (less-disabled) in their daily lives or “limited a lot” (more-disabled)
**The data is included in table six
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