By John Pring
A group of academics have called on the government to launch an immediate inquiry into why so many disabled people have died during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The call came in a new report by Oxford University’s Disability Law and Policy Project and its Bonavero Institute of Human Rights, which includes analysis by several disabled academics.
The report – An Affront to Dignity, Inclusion and Equality – concludes that the government’s policy-making has breached its duties to disabled people under both the Equality Act and the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD).
And it says the inequalities experienced by disabled people have widened during the pandemic.
The report makes 22 recommendations, including a call for an “immediate” review of legislation introduced by the government during the crisis, as well as an inquiry to “understand the scale of COVID-19 related deaths and to examine why this group has carried such a heavy burden” through the pandemic.
It also calls for the government to set up a Response and Recover Group, made up of disabled people and representatives of disabled people’s organisations, to ensure disabled people are “central to decision-making” on the country’s economic and social recovery.
The report points to “conservative” estimates from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) – first reported last month by Disability News Service – which show that disabled women are 2.4 times more likely to die from COVID-19 than non-disabled women and disabled men 1.9 times more likely to die than non-disabled men, with this rising to 11.3 times for disabled females aged nine to 64 and 6.5 times for disabled males aged nine to 64.
The report also highlights the “social and human rights” failings of the government’s pandemic response, which left many disabled people with high support needs unable to access food without leaving their homes, despite being at significant risk from the virus.
Among the disabled academics who contributed to the report was Professor Anna Lawson (pictured, second from right), director of The Centre for Disability Studies at the University of Leeds, who said the pandemic had led to two “very significant” cases taken under the Equality Act.
Hundreds of Deaf and disabled people have joined cases against the government – for failing to provide a British Sign Language interpreter at its regular COVID-19 briefings – and the major supermarkets, for their separate failures to make reasonable adjustments under the act.
Professor Jonathan Herring (pictured, far left), professor of law at Oxford University, who has himself been shielding during the pandemic, criticised the government’s shielding guidance.
He said: “Partners may not sleep together and should minimise time spent together. Parents should not cuddle their children or hold their hands.
“Comfort must be offered at a two-metre distance. Mealtimes should be solitary.
“The lifestyle promoted is starkly monastic. Disability campaigners have long argued that disabled people are portrayed as isolated, unproductive and sexless. They are now.”
He added: “Requiring people to isolate themselves in this way for months is out of proportion to the risk of associating with members of one’s household.
“Prohibiting physical interaction strikes at our souls.”
Dan Holloway, from the university’s Futures Thinking Network, criticised the government’s “simplistic” messaging around exercise and leaving the home.
He said: “Even when the written guidance had to be clarified to reflect the needs of autistic people under the Equality Act 2010, the messaging remained at odds with it.
“As a result, in real life and across social media, autistic people were shamed. That fear of shame led many not to go out at all.”
Holloway added: “Most damaging to trust between disabled people and institutions has been the speed with which adjustments have been enacted for everyone, such as remote working, that we spent decades being told were not possible.
“What conclusion are we to reach other than we were never valued and what was denied us was a lack of choice?”
Another contributor to the report was Kamran Mallick (pictured, far right), chief executive of Disability Rights UK (DR UK), who said that reports from disabled people across the country during the pandemic had highlighted a series of concerns, including receiving unsolicited “do not attempt resuscitation” letters, lack of access to adequate protective equipment and infection control guidance, and problems with access to food.
Another disabled academic, Dr Marie Tidball (second from left), co-ordinator of the Disability Law and Policy Project, who edited the report, said: “We need government to produce a disability inclusive response to COVID-19, which draws on the experiences of disabled people and disabled people’s organisations, to mitigate the immediate impacts of the coronavirus crisis, along with its long-term economic and social consequences.”
Last month, she was one of the first to highlight the ONS figures, saying they were “a tragic indictment of the government’s approach to shielding, its failure to prevent the spread in care homes and other institutional settings and the utter misjudgement of their inertia to prepare for the crisis earlier in the year”.
Other recommendations from the report include calls for all public health information to be accessible to disabled people; to ensure pandemic response and recovery measures “better accommodate those shielding to promote their wellbeing”, including setting aside times of the day when only those shielding are permitted outside; and to involve disabled people “at every stage of the development of communications” on the pandemic response and recovery.
It also calls on the government to produce “urgent guidance” on how to support access to food for disabled people during the current crisis and future pandemics, which meets its duties under the Equality Act 2010 and its commitment to UNCRPD.
By John Pring
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