Disabled people were left without protection, written out of key investigations and proper consultation, and had their rights ignored by the UK government during the pandemic, four national disabled people’s organisations (DPOs) have told the Covid inquiry.
They told the inquiry yesterday (Wednesday) that the government failed to recognise that there was no plan to protect disabled people when the pandemic broke out in early 2020.
They also said that the pandemic exposed the government’s Disability Unit as not fit for purpose because it dealt only with policy issues.
The comments were made by barrister Danny Friedman, on behalf of Disability Rights UK, Inclusion Scotland, Disability Wales and Disability Action Northern Ireland, as he delivered their closing statement for the second module of the Covid inquiry, which focuses on government decisions in the early months of the pandemic.
He told the inquiry that “in fundamental ways disabled people were left without protection during Covid”.
He said: “It was not wrong to try to protect hospitals. What was wrong was to do so little to protect those in care in the name of protecting hospitals.”
Evidence to the inquiry has shown, he said, “how obvious it would have been to any public health practitioners that mass release of hospital patients into care settings would create devastating consequences, both through patient infection and multiple movements of the workforce”.
The four DPOs also told the inquiry – through Friedman – that the lack of real engagement with disabled people meant the government was unable “to bring diverse lived experience and, where necessary, rebel voices into the room, people capable of speaking to elites as equals and without mediation”.
There was also “no proper safety net for those deemed unproductive or recognition that those only just scraping by after a decade of cuts to benefits and services would face further financial hardship”.
While there were 1.5 million “bounce back loans” worth £47 billion to businesses, universal credit was topped up by just £20 a week, while there was no increase for those on legacy benefits, or those receiving carers’ allowance in England.
Friedman told the inquiry that the oral evidence heard during the second module – which included appearances by former prime minister Boris Johnson, the current prime minister (and former chancellor) Rishi Sunak, and the former minister for disabled people, Justin Tomlinson – reinforced nine key criticisms made by the DPOs of “the Covid emergency state”.
On behalf of the DPOs, Friedman said disabled people “did not exist” in UK emergency planning before the pandemic, even though the UN committee on the rights of persons with disabilities had found the UK in breach of its legal duties over consultation, data collection and emergency planning in October 2017.
He said the UN committee had also concluded, in 2016, that “the resilience of disabled people had been placed in abject jeopardy by 10 years of austerity” and yet “at no stage in any of the papers [seen by the Covid inquiry] does anyone recognise these rights, or the fact that the UK could conceivably breach them”.
He told the inquiry: “Proper recognition would have publicly confronted from the outset that cuts in benefits and services had compromised the resilience of disabled people to deal with the life changes that the NPIs* were about to create.
“It would have declared clearly that the fact that there was no whole society planning for the pandemic in the UK would rebound terribly on disabled people.”
Friedman told the inquiry that Tomlinson, Johnson, former equalities minister Kemi Badenoch and former Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove had testified that “the risks of Covid to disabled people were so obvious that all of government was no doubt working on them”.
But Friedman said these risks had been “obvious to everyone, but the responsibility of no one”, and when civil servants “were finally pushed to deliver ambitious proposals” in the autumn of 2020, “none of the major proposals were adopted”.
He also highlighted how Tomlinson, who was the minister “nominally responsible” for producing a plan to protect disabled people, had repeatedly told the inquiry, when asked why there was no such plan: “That’s just not how government works.”
Friedman said that Badenoch, Tomlinson, former health secretary Matt Hancock and Johnson all claimed not to be responsible for addressing the “disparities” in the impact of the pandemic on disabled people, because that work was being done elsewhere.
He said: “In our submission, they all said that because they know now it should have been, but it was not.”
Friedman told the inquiry that the “predicaments” of disabled people went “largely unrecognised”, with the primary focus on those who were “clinically vulnerable” to the virus.
He said: “Strategies to protect the vulnerable and the overlaps and distinctions between clinical and social vulnerability failed in ways that most of the witnesses you have heard from have either not been able to comprehend or admit.”
*Non-pharmaceutical interventions ordered by government to deal with the pandemic
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