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Sun 25 October 2020
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Almost two-thirds of all people who have died from COVID-19 are disabled. Where is the support for some of the most vulnerable in our society?

With the emergency Coronavirus Act under review in the House of Commons this week and new local lockdowns announced on an almost-daily basis, questions are being asked – privately and publicly – about the absence of scrutiny over these new restrictions to our lives. Indeed, when it comes to the devastating impact of COVID-19 on disabled people in particular, there is shamefully little transparency, inquiry or interest.

Almost two-thirds of all people who have died from COVID-19 are disabled. New data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) shows that disabled people made up almost 60% of all deaths involving COVID-19 until July 2020 (27,534 of 46,314 deaths). 

What is more staggering is that these figures are an underestimate. As the ONS says, its data sources do not allow a statistical analysis by type of disability (like learning disability or specific physical disability). The analysis is also based on the 2011 census, which the ONS says is the best model currently available, yet is not reflective of the full UK disabled population.

“It is likely that the number of people who are recorded as having an activity-limiting condition [disability] is now an underestimate,” the ONS says, “because those not limited in 2011 may have developed a long-term health condition over the past nine years that limits their activities or any existing health condition may have worsened in severity, causing them to become limited.”

Figures from the Care Quality Commission (CQC) – the health and social care regulator – show a similar story, revealing a 175% increase in unexpected deaths among learning disabled or autistic people during the pandemic.

“It does still look like COVID-19 death rates might be higher for people with learning disabilities than for other people,” Professor Chris Hatton from Lancaster University said in July. Hatton warned three month earlier on his blog that there was “no room for complacency,” urging regular, honest, accessible information from the Government.

Yet six months into the pandemic, despite repeated warnings and requests for practical information and action from experts, campaigners, families and disabled people, there is little sign that such issues are being grasped.


COVID Complacency

As the sibling of a disabled person – my sister Raana has a learning disability and is in supported living – this is shocking, but not surprising.

The Government neglected the care and support sector as the pandemic took hold. Care homes, for example, had no testing and virtually no access to personal protective equipment (PPE). While PPE is now easier to acquire, there are still delays in care home testing, no automatic tests for supported living services and residential care providers are now sounding the alarm over fresh outbreaks.

The Government also has a myopic view of “care” as consisting only of older people in residential care, rather than younger or working-age people, or those living in their own homes with visiting support.

What is equally challenging for disabled people is how much more limited their lives have become as a result of COVID-19. This is not only due to restrictions or blanket bans on visiting. It is also not just because people are shielding or that the pandemic has replaced face-to-face support with online contact. It is because of the implications of the Coronavirus Act.

The Act, passed in March at the start of the pandemic, relaxed obligations on councils to carry out care and support needs assessments. No other group of people has forfeited rights like this, as argued by charities Disability Rights UK, Inclusion London, Liberty and Mind.

Amid all of this, the Cabinet Office’s Disability Unit, charged with developing a ‘National Strategy for Disabled People’ before the end of the year, has been strangely silent. At the time of writing, aside from reposting social media information about COVID-19 issued by other departments, the last announcement on its Government webpage was in July.

The Cabinet Office unit has the laudable aim of “[putting] fairness at the heart of Government work, to level up opportunity so everyone can fully participate in the life of this country”. 

Yet as a statement on its website explains, the pandemic is the current priority of the Government, and so the unit is reviewing plans for the strategy’s development. Disability Unit officials were approached for comment, yet at the time of publication had failed to provide a response.

The failure of the Government to acknowledge the pandemic’s disproportionate effect on disabled people intensifies the already stark inequalities they face in everything from health to housing and employment. Rather than COVID-19 necessitating delays to a national disability strategy, the impact of the crisis on disabled people makes its publication all the more vital.  

With disabled people bearing the brunt of the pandemic, and a second wave buffeting the UK, there is no room for complacency. Except, it appears, in Government.

Saba Salman is the editor of Made Possible: Stories of Success by Learning Disabled People – In their Own Words and the chair of the charity Sibs, which supports the siblings of disabled children and adults


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