Furious disabled activists have questioned the “sickening” and “utterly bizarre” decision to put disabled people seen as extremely vulnerable to coronavirus far down the queue for a life-saving vaccine, when it eventually becomes available.
They have begun to speak out after the government announced that one vaccine, developed by Pfizer and BioNTech, has been found to be more than 90 per cent effective in preventing COVID-19.
The vaccine has not yet been approved, but the government said that if and when it was the NHS “stands ready to begin a vaccination programme for those most at risk, as currently recommended by the independent Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), before being rolled out more widely”.
But the current advice by the JCVI shows disabled people at serious risk from COVID-19 are well down the list of priorities for a vaccine, even though three-fifths of COVID-related deaths have been of disabled people.
JCVI’s provisional ranking for priority for a vaccine means older people in care homes and care home workers would be first to be vaccinated, followed by over-80s and other health and social care workers.
The third group on the list of priorities is the over-75s, then those 70 and over, followed by those 65 and over.
But adults under 65 who are at high risk from the virus are only sixth on the list of priorities.
The disabled crossbench peer Baroness [Jane] Campbell, who spent months shielding during the pandemic because she has spinal muscular atrophy and is clinically extremely vulnerable (CEV) to the virus, is set to raise concerns about the priority list in the House of Lords.
She told Disability News Service that the list “does not seem right, as people like myself who are one of the most at risk of becoming seriously ill if I caught the virus are deemed a lower priority than somebody healthy aged 65 and over”.
She said: “I would put us alongside category two, personally.
“Obviously, I do not have a scientific evidence-base behind my view, however it seems common sense to me.”
She has now submitted a request to ask a “topical question” of the government in the Lords on why the guidance currently prioritises adults aged 65 and over, including those who are healthy, above high-risk adults under 65.
Disabled activist Lisa Egan was among the first to raise concerns about the JCVI document.
She said: “After more than 59 per cent of people who’ve died of COVID have been disabled, it’s sickening that the very highest risk groups aged under 65 will not be vaccinated until every single perfectly healthy person over 65 has been vaccinated.
“It’s especially heinous that only senior residents of care homes will be vaccinated initially rather than all residents.
“This is the government clearly stating that within the same environment, the older residents are worth protecting, but disabled residents under 65 can just die.”
She pointed out that those disabled people who are clinically extremely vulnerable (CEV) to the virus are not being asked to shield from COVID-19, as they were in the first months of the pandemic – although they are still being “strongly” advised to stay at home, apart from taking exercise and for doctors’ appointments – which already puts them at greater risk.
She said the current plans show “exactly how disposable” disabled people are by being based on age rather than risk level.
Egan said it was the latest in a long line of attacks on disabled people’s rights during the pandemic, including the deliberate discharge of patients with COVID into care homes in the early weeks of the pandemic, which is believed to have caused thousands of deaths of older and disabled people.
Another disabled activist, David Gillon, said: “We know from the government’s own statistics that disabled people have borne the overwhelming brunt of COVID deaths.
“It’s utterly bizarre that the government’s vaccine task force is not proposing a prioritisation scheme based on clinical need and vulnerability, but as things stand a marathon-running 65-year-old is a higher priority for vaccination than an immuno-suppressed and ventilator-dependent 20-year-old.
“While prioritising care home residents and staff over everyone else is obviously defensible given the devastating death tolls many suffered during the first wave, the proposal to limit this to elderly residents, but not disabled younger residents confined to care homes due to the deficiencies in adult care, simply does not make sense, either medically or logistically.
“Explicitly specifying ‘older adults’ makes it clear that this was a deliberate decision, rather than… simply forgetting about disabled younger residents.”
Gillon pointed to a study published last month (PDF) by The Royal Society and The British Academy which noted the concerns with the JCVI recommendations, and proposed an alternative scheme that would give first priority to healthcare workers and second priority to care home residents and people with conditions that meant they were at “significantly higher risk”.
Implementing this alternative scheme, he said, “would be no more complex” than the one proposed by JCVI.
The Department of Health and Social Care had not responded to a request for a comment by noon today (Thursday).
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