Disabled campaigners have made a last-minute appeal to the government to abandon its plans to relax rules on socialising over Christmas, as fears grow that this will cause a sharp rise in coronavirus infections and many thousands of deaths.
Disabled people’s organisations (DPOs), user-led grassroots groups and disabled peers spoke out as the prime minister refused yesterday (Wednesday) to change his plans to allow household mixing in England at Christmas.
The calls for Boris Johnson to think again were backed by the editors of the British Medical Journal and the Health Service Journal, who called on the government to “reverse its rash decision”.
In a joint editorial, they warned that Johnson was “about to blunder into another major error that will cost many lives”.
Their call for the public to “mitigate the impact” of this expected third wave by being as careful as possible over the next few months was echoed by disabled campaigners.
The grassroots disabled people’s organisation Bristol Reclaiming Independent Living (BRIL) said the government’s refusal to alter its policy on Christmas COVID rules was “unforgivable”.
Mark Williams (pictured, right), from BRIL, said: “We understand that families want to be together at Christmas, but why was it announced so early that restrictions would be removed for five days, when cases were not going down at the time, and have risen ever since?”
A BRIL spokesperson added: “They have failed to make sure people can safely have support and visits from families, personal assistants and advocates in care homes, hospitals and mental health wards.
“Failed to provide accessible information. Failed to involve disabled people in policy decisions.
“But, instead, they have dreamed up a dangerous and confusing ‘Christmas Bubble’ policy.”
One BRIL member said: “They are trying to please too many people. In January, when the hospitals are full, Johnson will put the blame on the public.”
The BRIL spokesperson said: “To carry on with this policy, seemingly to deflect from their repeated failures, is unforgivable.”
Jumoke Abdullahi, communications and media officer at Inclusion London, said: “The government’s reluctance to forgo plans to relax COVID restrictions over the Christmas period will likely put disabled people at greater risk and place an even greater strain on already overstretched health services.
“The government has a duty of care, especially during a pandemic that has claimed so many disabled people’s lives, to ensure the safety of people in the UK.
“We urge the government to reconsider their position, as placing this responsibility onto individuals will likely create confusion and potentially lead to more avoidable deaths, as infection rates are rapidly rising.”
Fazilet Hadi, head of policy for Disability Rights UK, said the government’s “current stance feels way too reckless”, and that it needed to rethink the rules “to strike a better balance to allow for limited social contact and protecting lives”.
She said: “The government’s stance that multiple households can travel distance in a compressed timeframe, often on public transport, and mingle for five days, sounds like a recipe for superspreading.
“There is a desperate need for some of us to socialise. Many disabled people have been shielding. Many of us have been in isolation, separated from loved ones for the best part of a year now.
“The impacts on mental health from prolonged isolation are profound. And yet two thirds of all deaths have been those of disabled people.
“An extremely careful balance needs to be struck to permit limited social contact without costing more lives.”
Professor Peter Beresford, co-chair of the disabled people’s and service-user network Shaping Our Lives, was another to call on the government to change its mind.
But he also said the pandemic had shown that people pay for their politicians’ failings and that “the least powerful pay with multiple interest”.
He said that the political decision that people in England could celebrate Christmas “flies in the face of the evidence and good sense”.
He added: “Almost a year on from the first showings of the virus, as a result of appalling political and policy failings, the only ray of hope the UK has is the introduction of a workable vaccine.”
The Disability Union called on the government to “admit that current restrictions are not enough to prevent a dangerous rise in infections, to immediately cancel the relaxation of restrictions over Christmas, and to conduct an urgent review into the tier system to establish how we can use targeted use of increased restrictions to flatten the curve as soon as possible”.
George Baker (pictured, centre), founder of The Disability Union, pointed out that disabled people made up three-fifths of the deaths from COVID-19 “so rising infections put disabled people at a disproportionately higher risk”.
He said: “Many disabled people are still shielding and will be unable to celebrate with their friends and family regardless of restrictions, so The Disability Union asks that as many people as possible stay home in solidarity with those of us who cannot risk contracting the virus.
“We are not simple statistics or numbers on a screen, we are your friends, family and loved ones – staying home this Christmas could save our lives.”
Kathy Bole, co-chair of Disability Labour, said she believed the government’s actions on Christmas were “reckless” and could result in another period of lockdown.
She said: “I agree with the medical advice. The numbers are rising quickly. From the disabled folks I know, most are staying in shielding just as a precaution.
“In the USA, the numbers are showing that cases rose exponentially due to the Thanksgiving weekend where people seem to have disregarded warnings not to travel and to wear masks.
“I believe that this doesn’t bode well for our Christmas relaxation of rules.”
Baroness [Celia] Thomas, the Liberal Democrat disabled peer, said: “I think the government should do everything they can to reduce the risk of disabled people becoming seriously ill, and the NHS being overwhelmed over Christmas, and into the New Year.
“If this means toughening the guidance, they must do it.”
She added: “The last thing disabled people want is for all the shielding they have had to endure this year to be thrown away for a few unguarded days over Christmas which might overwhelm the NHS.”
Piers Wilkinson (pictured, left), from Manchester Disabled People Against Cuts (MDPAC), said: “MDPAC thinks the government is playing politics with our lives – for capitalism.
“COVID-19 is not taking a winter holiday and neither is the susceptibility to it of disabled people, of all ages.
“Many of us have had to self-isolate since March and this will continue over the winter.
“Muslim, Hindu and Jewish people have all had to endure lockdowns during their festivals due to COVID-19.
“On that basis, and as a disabled people’s organisation that welcomes people of all faiths and none, MDPAC doesn’t see any special reason for this Christian holiday to be exempt.
“We appeal to the wider public to support us by doing what they can to reduce the spread of COVID-19 all year round – whatever tier people are in.”
The crossbench disabled peer Baroness [Tanni] Grey-Thompson said she would like the government to be more restrictive over Christmas, but she said she feared that, even if it did, many people would ignore those rules.
She said: “I think the best chance is for people to look at their own behaviours and realise the impact they will make, which could be influenced by disabled people and DPOs.”
She said that “being allowed to mix doesn’t mean that you ‘have’ to mix.
“I just hope that people will be really sensible and think about the long-term consequences [of their actions over Christmas].”
So far, just one disabled people’s organisation, People First (Self Advocacy), has not called for the government to change its position.
Andrew Lee, director of the organisation, said: “I don’t think the government should abandon the plans to relax the rules over the five days.
“People should take responsibility to stay safe and make their own decisions about who they meet up with, taking into account who is in the high-risk categories.”
He called on the government instead to stop “continually changing levels of restrictions”, which he said was “confusing and potentially dangerous, whether it’s Christmas or not” and had left people with learning difficulties “confused, frightened and isolated”.
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