The government has been accused of abdicating its responsibility to millions of disabled people in England and leaving them to “fend for themselves”, after deciding to push ahead with “reckless” plans to lift most COVID-19 restrictions.
On Monday (19 July), the prime minister is lifting most of England’s legal restrictions and social distancing measures, including those requiring most people to wear face coverings on public transport and in shops.
But new government guidance for the 3.7 million people in England seen as clinically extremely vulnerable (CEV) to the virus has been criticised for failing to offer them support or protection, while making them largely responsible for their own safety.
Only last month, Disability News Service (DNS) reported that discrimination by the government as it responded to the pandemic, and within the NHS, could be to blame for disabled people’s sharply-increased risk of dying from COVID-19.
That new study, partly carried out by the Office for National Statistics, said that working-age disabled women with higher support needs in England were about 90 per cent more likely to die from coronavirus than non-disabled women of the same age (the figure for men was 74 per cent), even after taking into account factors such as underlying health conditions, poverty and whether they lived in a care home.
Despite this research, which showed again that 58 per cent of COVID-related deaths in England have been of disabled people, the latest government guidance repeatedly places the responsibility for keeping safe on CEV people, saying that they “may wish to think particularly carefully about additional precautions you might wish to continue to take”.
And it says they may also wish to “think particularly carefully about taking precautions when meeting others you do not usually meet with” and might want to “consider going to the shops and pharmacy at quieter times of the day”.
Priority access to supermarket delivery slots ended last month, while CEV pupils and students are already expected to have returned to their school or college.
The new guidance says that it will now “no longer be necessary for the government to instruct people to work from home”, while workplace social distancing measures will end, and the “furlough” job retention scheme will be wound up on 30 September.
But it also says that – although no longer mandatory – the government still “expects and recommends” that people wear face coverings in crowded areas, such as on public transport, which it says might make CEV people “feel more relaxed”.
London’s mayor, Sadiq Khan, took the decision this week to over-ride the government’s move to lift most of the restrictions by ordering that wearing face coverings would remain mandatory for those using public transport in the capital, apart from passengers who are exempt.
Tracey Lazard, chief executive of Inclusion London, said the government’s move to ease the rules and its new CEV guidance were “terrifying” for many disabled people, and “the latest in a long line of examples of disabled people being ignored, dismissed and our needs not thought about”.
She told DNS that CEV people were essentially being told to shield again because it would be impossible to know who in a supermarket had been fully vaccinated, and “to go round asking everybody in your vicinity to put on a mask as you enter that space”.
Lazard pointed out that the move would also disproportionately affect people from black and minority ethnic communities.
She said: “It’s an abdication of government duties and responsibilities.”
Fazilet Hadi, head of policy at Disability Rights UK, said: “The government is removing all coronavirus restrictions on 19 July, leaving almost four million CEV people to fend for themselves.
“Despite the UK still experiencing a public health emergency and the rapid increase in infection rates, the government maintains that we must all learn to live with COVID.
“However, for at least four million of its citizens, the risk of dying from COVID remains unacceptably high.
“The government’s reckless approach has been roundly criticised by scientists and doctors; it leaves CEV people to fend for themselves, viewing them as being outside of mainstream society.
“They are asked to take precautions, to be cautious, to avoid indoor spaces and not to meet people who haven’t been double vaccinated.
“Surely, in an ongoing pandemic, there should be measures that keep all of us safe.”
The concerns came as a letter to The Lancet from more than 100 experts – and later signed by hundreds more from across the world – criticised the government’s “premature” decision to lift most of the restrictions, which it described as a “dangerous and unethical experiment”.
But the letter also warns that, “as deprived communities are more exposed to and more at risk from COVID-19, these policies will continue to disproportionately affect the most vulnerable and marginalised, deepening inequalities”.
Meanwhile, the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) has not been able to tell Labour’s shadow women and equalities secretary, Marsha de Cordova, whether it has carried out an assessment of the impact of the plans to end COVID-19 restrictions on disabled people and other equality groups.
Public health minister Jo Churchill told her this week, in a written answer, that it “will not be possible to answer this question within the usual time period”.
And new research by the Office for National Statistics showed that nearly a third of CEV people (29 per cent) said they were continuing to shield from the virus, despite official shielding advice being paused on 1 April.
Joanna O’Malley is one of the CEV people who have been left extremely concerned by the government’s decisions.
She told DNS: “As a person who is categorised as clinically extremely vulnerable, it’s extremely concerning to think that once again the government are leaving us unprotected in order for the economy to grow, thus showing they haven’t learned from past mistakes and continue to treat us as second-class citizens.”
She has been supporting a parliamentary petition which calls on the government to reverse its position on wearing face coverings and to ensure they remain mandatory in indoor settings like shops and public transport.
O’Malley said: “Asking people to wear masks indoors is such a small ask when people’s lives are at risk.”
The prime minister, Boris Johnson, was asked about the impact on CEV people in yesterday’s prime minister’s questions, by Labour MP Clive Efford.
He told Johnson: “My constituent Jacqui Davies was diagnosed in April with a type of blood cancer that prevents her immune system from developing antibodies against COVID.
“Jacqui wants to live as normal a life as possible, and to do everyday things like going shopping, but she is terrified and she thinks that the rapid lifting of restrictions on Monday is putting her at risk.”
He asked Johnson to “rethink the reckless gamble of lifting all these restrictions on Monday”.
The prime minister told him that ministers “expect and recommend everybody to wear a face covering in a confined space where they are meeting people they do not normally meet, and that is quite right”.
DNS asked the government how it justified removing nearly all the measures that were supporting CEV people during the pandemic, and how ministers would support and protect those who are CEV over the next few months, but a DHSC spokesperson had not responded by noon today (Thursday).
*For sources of information and support during the coronavirus crisis, visit the DNS advice and information page
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