The Tories’ latest coronavirus move could put disabled people’s lives at risk

Matt Hancock giving a coronavirus briefing
Steve Topple

The Conservative government has just relaxed the rules around social isolation for some autistic and learning disabled people. But the move is completely at odds with what is happening across the country. And the new policy could literally be putting lives at risk.

New coronavirus guidance

The Guardian has reported that after a legal challenge the government has relaxed the rules around social isolation. This is specifically for autistic and learning disabled people. The law firms involved argued the coronavirus (Covid-19) rules about isolation were discriminatory. The Guardian noted that:

The updated advice reads: ‘If you (or a person in your care) have a specific health condition that requires you to leave the home to maintain your health – including if that involves travel beyond your local area – then you can do so.

‘This could, for example, include where individuals with learning disabilities or autism require specific exercise in an open space two or three times each day – ideally in line with a care plan agreed with a medical professional.’. …

The change comes after lawyers from Bindmans LLP and 39 Essex Chambers were asked for help by two families with children on the autistic spectrum.

Bindmans said one of the children, whose conditions mean it was necessary for them to leave the house more than once a day for their wellbeing, was deliberately taken to a quiet location outside of their local area because of their particular needs.

The firms argued that the ‘inflexible policy’, which also says people should stay two metres apart from anyone outside of their household, disproportionately impacted those with certain health conditions and was ‘therefore unlawful and discriminatory’.

This does seem a reasonable approach. But when you compare it with the reality of the situation for many learning disabled people in the UK, it could actually prove dangerous. And it also reeks of double standards.

For and against

There is a strong argument to be had for relaxing the rules for certain people. Autistic people, for example, often struggle with changes to routine. If the new rules mean some sort of stability with their daily lives is returned, then that’s a positive thing. Also, people living with Down’s syndrome often have exercise regimes due to their increased risk of obesity, But there also needs to be a sense of extreme caution.

In the US, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) has identified disabled people as being at higher risk from coronavirus. It notes that:

Disability alone may not be related to higher risk for getting COVID-19 or having severe illness. Most people with disabilities are not inherently at higher risk for becoming infected with or having severe illness from COVID-19. However, some people with disabilities might be at a higher risk of infection or severe illness because of their underlying medical conditions. All people seem to be at higher risk of severe illness from COVID-19 if they have serious underlying chronic medical conditions like chronic lung disease, a serious heart condition, or a weakened immune system. Adults with disabilities are three times more likely than adults without disabilities to have heart disease, stroke, diabetes, or cancer than adults without disabilities.

The CDC noted that some disabled people would be at higher risk due to them having “trouble understanding information or practising preventive measures, such as hand washing and social distancing”. It also said this applies to “people who may not be able to communicate symptoms of illness”. Both these instances would often be learning disabled people.

Countless problems

The NHS has also recognised learning disabled people as being at higher risk. But they do not fall into the official “shielded” category. Yet people living with Down’s syndrome, for example, are at higher risk of infections, specifically respiratory ones. They also can live with heart defects and other conditions which could worsen the effects of coronavirus if caught.

Moreover, it has been reported that care homes are in chaos due to the lack of personal protective equipment (PPE). So already, learning disabled people in these environments will be at greater risk from coronavirus. And as The Canary previously reported, there have been accounts of doctors trying to force Do Not Resuscitate (DNR) notices on learning disabled people. So, which is it? Either learning disabled people’s lives are expendable, or they are important enough that they should be allowed more freedoms during the pandemic than others.

But the move from the Tories also shows the hypocrisy which sits at the heart of their policies.

Political posturing

For years, thousands of autistic and learning disabled people have been trapped in hospitals. In 2015, the Tory government pledged to move 50% (1,297) of the 2,595 people who were living in ‘in patient’ settings out into the community. This was due to happen by 2019. Fast forward to January 2020 and NHS figures show that 2,185 autistic and learning disabled people were still in patients; over 1,000 of these people had been stuck in hospital for more than two years.

Yet now, the Tories want autistic and learning disabled people to have more freedom during coronavirus than the rest of the population? It reeks of political posturing to show they are ensuring disabled people’s rights and needs are protected. When, in reality, the Tories’ track record on this has been abhorrent.

It would be remiss to say that learning disabled people should not have special dispensation during the pandemic. But that would only work if the systems to ensure they were properly shielded from the virus were in place already. They’re not. From support workers not having PPE, to doctors effectively saying learning disabled people come lower down the life-saving pecking order by placing DNR notices on them – the response to coronavirus for learning disabled people has been a shambles. And now, under the guise of civil liberties, the government is wilfully allowing them to be put at greater risk of catching the virus.

In an ideal world, PPE would be readily available, maximum testing and tracing would be done and other measures would be in place to limit the spread of coronavirus. This would mean the relaxing of the social isolation rules for learning disabled people would be a measured response. But in Tory Britain, where the response to the pandemic has been wilfully neglectful, it could sadly prove deadly.

Featured image via Guardian News – YouTube

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