The DWP left a woman so starved she got an illness usually seen in concentration camps

The DWP logo and victims from a Japanese concentration camp
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The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has been accused of leaving one woman so poor she developed a life-threatening illness. This was due to starvation. It’s an illness more usually associated with war zones, famine, and concentration camps.

The DWP and ‘refeeding syndrome’

The Canary has changed the claimant’s name to ‘Alice’. We have full permission to publish her story.

As Rob McDowall from the charity Welfare Scotland wrote on Twitter :

I visited… Alice at home who had collapsed. I visited her and met her social worker and her partner who were concerned. Alice didn’t want to go to hospital but we had to call an ambulance as her heart rate was erratic, she couldn’t keep her eyes open & was clammy.

She was confused and shouting for her mum who had passed away over 20 years ago. Ambulance staff said her heart was showing signs of stress. Rushed to hospital. [Alice] was seen by emergency doctors and diagnosed as suffering from refeeding syndrome.

I had taken [Alice] to get emergency food from the food bank a couple of days ago. I didn’t know Alice had been in a state of practical starvation for months and was existing on very little food. When Alice went home and had her first meal… her body was fragile and couldn’t cope… She ate most of a packet of cookies I had given her as she was so happy to have a choice and have food there. Her body, used to starving, couldn’t cope and it unleashed mayhem.

The BMJ says doctors first saw refeeding syndrome in survivors of Japan’s WWII concentration camps. As McDowall says, it usually occurs in war zones and during famines.

Read on...

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In short, when a person suffers starvation, their body uses fat and protein stores to produce energy. Then, when their body gets carbs and sugars again, it goes into overdrive. This can lead to cardiac failure and death. Alice was lucky as the illness didn’t get that far.

But it’s her backstory which is most heartbreaking – and damning of the DWP.

Alice’s life

Alice lives with a form of epilepsy; arthritis in her neck, hands and knees; asthma; chronic hip pain; and had a double mastectomy due to breast cancer. She is classed as vulnerable, and a social worker supports her. Her council is now assessing her for social care. Alice has a partner of three years whom she met through a ‘befriending group’.

She used to work – first as a school cleaner and then in the post office. But her health deteriorated – first pushing her into part-time hours and then leaving her unable to work at all. Alice used to volunteer with a charity which helps asylum seekers.

Alice got Disability Living Allowance (DLA) for 11 years and was also in the Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) Support Group. This was due to how bad her health was. But under DWP changes which saw DLA replaced with the Personal Independence Payment (PIP), Alice had a reassessment. And her life took a damaging turn for the worse from there.


Welfare Scotland helped Alice with her PIP claim. It sent the form along with a doctor’s letter and 16 additional pages of evidence. This included two consultant reports and a letter from Alice’s nurse and social worker.

It took 14 weeks for the DWP to arrange a face-to-face assessment for Alice. As McDowall told The Canary:

The PIP health assessor was very curt and dry. She repeatedly told Alice that she ‘doesn’t have all day’. She also [told] Alice if she didn’t do the movements then she would tell the DWP that she wasn’t cooperating. Alice ended up attempting a range of movements which left her stiff and in agony. She said the assessor didn’t look at her once except when she was attempting the movements. The medical report they sent to the DWP wasn’t accurate. It said Alice had a cat despite her never having a cat nor even mentioning cats. The report claimed that Alice was well presented etc. This is despite her having been unable to even wash her hair for a week.

The DWP stopped Alice’s DLA and didn’t award her PIP. This meant she lost £181 a week, as she was also getting the Severe Disability Premium. But the DWP’s neglect of Alice didn’t stop here.

“Feeling suicidal” 

This year, it told her she had to fill in a renewal form for her ESA. She did this, and the DWP then sent her for a Work Capability Assessment (WCA). The assessor scored her zero points and deemed her fit for work – a result the DWP upheld when Alice asked for a Mandatory Reconsideration. This meant the DWP also stopped Alice’s Disability Premium – leaving her, in total, £215 a week worse off.

McDowall told The Canary:

Over the past few months, Alice had to seriously cut her food intake. She was really struggling with money since the DWP cut her ESA and stopped her DLA.

Alice was having cereal for breakfast and dinner and then couldn’t afford even the cereal twice a day. She has been feeling suicidal since March. She’s always been slight but she has lost four stone since Christmas.

Welfare Scotland is supporting Alice to appeal both the DLA/PIP and ESA decisions.

A broken system?

McDowall perhaps summed up her situation best:

Alice keeps saying she’s sorry for causing all this trouble. I’ve explained it isn’t her fault. She said she was terrified she was dying. But she also ‘felt like it would solve a lot of problems’.

Alice’s story is just one of maybe thousands in the UK. You may think refeeding syndrome is the most horrific part – that we’re seeing illnesses in the UK usually associated with concentration camps and famine zones.

But perhaps it’s not. Maybe it’s the fact that the DWP made Alice feel like a burden, that it left her thinking her best choice was to die. This is the most damning part of Alice’s story.

The UK now has a system that leaves people feeling they’d be better off dead. It’s surely time we admitted that the DWP is broken beyond repair.

The Canary asked the DWP for comment, but it hadn’t responded at the time of publication.

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– Support DPAC and Black Triangle, fighting for disabled people’s rights.

Featured image via Unknown  – Wikimedia and UK government – Wikimedia 

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