AT A PRELIMINARY hearing of Module 2 of the Covid Inquiry on 6 June 2023, four national Disabled People’s Organisations (DPOs) argued for full disclosure of Government WhatsApps and other documents to allow the Inquiry to examine the disproportionate impact of Covid-19, and the government’s response, upon Disabled people.
The DPOs (Disability Action Northern Ireland, Disability Rights UK, Disability Wales and Inclusion Scotland), asked that the Cabinet Office unequivocally confirm they will not rely on ‘cabinet collective responsibility’ to restrict publication of disagreements between ministers on the Covid response.
In their written and oral submissions the DPOs said the Inquiry should properly examine:
- The extent to which the Government considered pre-existing inequalities suffered by Disabled people when planning for and responding to the pandemic.
- How and why many Disabled people were initially excluded from the definition of ‘vulnerability’ in terms of (1) being both at risk clinically from Covid-19 and from other conditions due to cuts to health and social care, and (2) at risk socially, physically and psychologically as a result of lockdowns and other ‘non-pharmaceutical interventions’.
- The Government’s approach to its legal duties under Equality and Human Rights law and related policy commitments.
- The limited extent to which Disabled people and their representative organisations were consulted with during the pandemic response.
- The extent to which food insecurity impacted on Disabled people who often struggled to access food and other basic necessities during lockdowns.
On the subject of the Government (1) refusing to disclose all unredacted WhatsApps, diaries and notebooks to the Inquiry and separately, (2) threatening to challenge publication of other documents on purported grounds of ‘cabinet collective responsibility’ the DPOs said, in relation to the refusal to disclose unredacted WhatsApps:
- It is only through unredacted WhatsApp messages leaked to the press that Disabled people know that Matt Hancock allowed the whips to threaten funding for a Learning Disability hub if the MP for Bury North did not vote with the Government on the Tier system.
- Instant messaging can show bias that other sources of evidence conceal, and those who review these materials for relevance can themselves be prone to unconscious bias, especially if they do not appreciate particular forms of discrimination in themselves and others.
- The Government is wrong to withhold disclosure and in doing so, is threatening the Inquiry’s ability to get to the truth as well as causing unacceptable delay,
- The Government should not have a privileged status which allows them to redact documents before disclosure to the Inquiry.
In relation to the Government’s proposed attempt to restrict publication of documents on the grounds of ‘cabinet collective responsibility’ the DPOs said:
- Important disagreements between ministers about the response to Covid must be published even if they are politically embarrassing.
- There is an enhanced need to scrutinise cabinet decision making given that the law making powers provided by Part II of the Public Health (Control of Diseases) Act 1984 granted so much power to the Executive over and above the scrutiny of Parliament or the courts.
Disability Rights UK CEO Kamran Mallick said: “The Covid pandemic had a catastrophic impact on Disabled people. Almost two-thirds of the people who died were Disabled people, and Disabled people were forced to live without access to care, food, medicine, human connection and appropriate education.
“It is vital that the Covid Public Inquiry lifts the lid on the hows and whys of decision making. It must be given unfettered access to all relevant material, formal and informal. Lessons must be learned and action taken to ensure that Disabled people are never again treated as collateral damage in future pandemics, disasters or emergencies.”
Disability Wales Chief Executive Rhian Davies said: “The Covid pandemic continues to have a devastating and long lasting impact on Disabled people. It is vital that the Covid Public Inquiry is fully able to shine a light on decision making at all levels during the pandemic and to do so obtains unimpeded access to all relevant material whether formal or informal. Lessons must be learned and action taken to ensure that the high death rate among Disabled people and catastrophic impacts on their lives are never again regarded as inevitable in future pandemics, disasters or emergencies.”
Disability Action Northern Ireland, Disability Rights UK, Disability Wales and Inclusion Scotland are Core Participants in the Covid-19 Inquiry.
* Source: Disability Wales