LAST MONTH, a year after the UK went into lockdown and on the very morning that a judicial review on the matter was about to begin, Matt Hancock’s department agreed, “To consider how information on shielding can be given in an accessible format to disabled people and/or people with communication needs who are on the Shielded Patients List.”
The judicial review had been sought by Sarah Leadbetter, who is visually impaired and clinically extremely vulnerable, and was for months completely unaware that she had been sent four government letters advising her to shield. This could be said to epitomise the government’s behaviour towards disabled people during the pandemic, the gulf between its caring rhetoric and careless reality.
On 31 March 2020, Justin Tomlinson, the Minister for Disabled People, issued a statement which said, “This government hugely values disabled people and is committed to ensuring that disabled people are supported during this challenging and worrying time. We will do everything in our power to ensure the needs of disabled people are addressed.” That was the first, and to date the only, official announcement from the Minister for Disabled People about the pandemic.
The government’s Disability Unit says it is, “creating an evidence-based disability strategy that understands the lived experience of disabled people”. Its website also carried the statement from Justin Tomlinson, but since then appears to have said nothing about the actual lived experience of disabled people in the pandemic. The official communications of the two government departments focused on disabled people would seem to suggest that how they fared during the pandemic was not a top priority.
Of course, public announcements are not the whole story. Quiet but effective work behind the scenes could go unreported, but be reflected in an informed and considerate government approach. Sadly, there is no evidence that this has been the case – in fact the available evidence suggests the opposite.
Last month the excellent Disability News Service published a list of 24 ways in which the government had breached the rights of disabled people during the pandemic – and acknowledged that there are probably more examples to be found. These breaches and failures occurred right across government, with varying degrees of seriousness. Some, inevitably, had grave consequences, like discharging hospital patients into residential care homes without them being tested for Covid.
Some caused unnecessary hardship and suffering. Whilst Universal Credit claimants received an extra £20 a week, people on disability benefits did not. Faced with the extra costs of minimum supermarket spends and delivery charges, research found that many were forced to cut down on essentials like heat and food and 100,000 unpaid carers were forced to use foodbanks.
For David Allen, who has multiple sclerosis and was shielding, the cost of food deliveries had a serious impact: “I’m constantly worrying about other costs – I find myself sitting in the dark more than I should so as not to turn the lights on for too long… I live on my own, so it’s hard not to think your world is closing in around you. The harsh reality is that the pandemic has meant our bills are going up quicker than our income, and there’s just nowhere to go to make up for that. It’s meant we feel abandoned and left to sink.”
Some government failures simply showed a blatant lack of respect and consideration, like failing to provide a British Sign Language (BSL) interpreter for Downing Street briefings, – something considered a basic requirement in other countries, not just around the world but around the UK. The defence was that it wasn’t a problem, because the BBC would broadcast all the briefings with a BSL interpreter. This suggests that the possibility of a Deaf journalist participating in the briefings had never been considered. And even after spending £2.6 million on a new press briefing room, still no BSL.
Even as the government spoke about doing everything in its power to address the needs of disabled people, some of its own disabled employees were refused permission to work from home, forced to choose between their livelihoods and their safety. Particularly culpable in this regard, said the CPS union, were the Ministry of Justice and the Department for Work and Pensions. That’s the department in which the Minister for Disabled People works, giving disabled people no option but to put themselves at risk in a global pandemic.
It is of course said that this was a situation which would be a huge challenge to any government, and so it was understandable that some issues were overlooked in the scramble to adapt. But these excuses really don’t stand up, for two main reasons. First, when many of these problems were pointed out, the government refused to resolve them. When more than a hundred charities and disabled people’s organisations called for the £20 a week to be extended to disabled people, the government steadfastly refused to do so. And it took a year and the threat of a judicial review to get the government to ‘consider’ sending blind people vital public health information in an accessible format.
Yes, the scale of the challenge as the pandemic hit was formidable. But in some areas government action was swift and decisive – and it was through these actions the government showed its true priorities.
The Coronavirus Act 2020 was pushed through the House of Commons at breakneck speed, in one day. But far from demonstrating a desire to support disabled people through the pandemic, this legislation indicated that they could be the first to be abandoned, if it was deemed necessary. The Act removed from disabled people some rights to care and support, leading Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson to say, “This is a health and social care obliteration bill by a different name.” Professor Sarabajaya Kumar wrote “What can possibly underpin the thinking that in this time of crisis it is ethical or in any way appropriate for the government to severely limit the fundamental rights of those who are in most need of support?”
Disabled people’s organisation Inclusion London has produced two reports on how disabled people fared in the pandemic, and said, “Despite the messages about protecting and supporting those in greatest need, the government’s approach has been to introduce legislation, guidance and policies which have actively undermined our ability to protect ourselves and our rights to critical support.”
It is surely very revealing that the government was swift and decisive in taking actions that removed rights from disabled people, but either very slow or downright resistant to taking measures that would offer even basic consideration or support. One has to wonder about the thinking and ideology behind such conduct.
Meanwhile, the Office for National Statistics reported that: “Disabled people made up 6 in 10 (59.5 per cent) of all deaths involving the coronavirus (COVID-19) for the period to 20 November 2020 (30,296 of 50,888 deaths).”
Just before Christmas 2020, Parliament’s cross-party Women and Equalities Committee published a report on the unequal impact of the pandemic on disabled people, and concluded: “In the light of starkly disproportionate and tragic data on death rates from coronavirus of disabled people, including shocking figures for deaths of people, including young people, with learning disabilities, there must be a discrete independent inquiry into the causes. It must be a wide-ranging inquiry, including consideration of the role of the Government’s and public authorities’ policies and decisions in adverse outcomes for disabled people. The independent inquiry must be established as soon as we have gained control of the pandemic, which we all hope will be in the first half of 2021.”
In the last week, the government appears to have rejected that suggestion, and most of the report’s recommendations, showing very little willingness to admit mistakes or learn from experience. This is disturbing, but entirely consistent with the way successive Conservative governments treated disabled people before the pandemic. With over a million people in the UK now affected by Long Covid, and little understanding of when or if they will fully recover, this is a failure of government which may affect growing numbers of people.
© Bernadette Meaden has written about political, religious and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor. Her latest book is Illness, Disability and Caring: A Bible study for individuals and groups (DLT, 2020). Her latest articles can be found here. Past columns (up to 2020) are archived here. You can follow Bernadette on Twitter: @BernaMeaden