The last two years haven’t been fantastic for anyone — but they’ve been awful for disabled people.
On January 2, 2020, Prime Minister Boris Johnson shared a tweet that is dripping in irony, one global pandemic and two variants of concern later. “This is going to be a fantastic year for Britain,” he writes, giving his best Churchill impression to the camera as he sticks his thumbs up as if to represent some kind of universal reassurance to the nation.
Two months later, the country went into a national lockdown — with The Times later revealing Johnson’s numerous attempts to dodge and delay taking action against the pandemic.
A 2020 Select Committee report found that 60% of disabled people struggled to access essential supplies during the pandemic. According to this report, disabled people also struggled to access things like health and social care and specialist education facilities, leaving them disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.
While the clinically extremely vulnerable remained trapped in their homes, long after “eat out to help out” and the arbitrary “tier” system kept them in the dark about what was safe for them to do, the Office for National Statistics found that between January and November 2020, disabled people as a whole accounted for 6 out of every ten deaths (59.5%) involving COVID-19.
This statistic is grim within itself, but when one considers how, according to disability charity Scope, only 19% of the UK population are disabled, it is abundantly clear that they are a group that the pandemic has disproportionately impacted — and are paying with their lives.
COVID deaths have peaked and troughed, but while those who die from COVID following “underlying conditions” are often brushed off as a footnote in comparison to “normal people” dying, it is clear that something more sinister is at play here.
At the end of 2020, the first phase of a report by the Care Quality Commission found that Do Not Resuscitate orders were being imposed on disabled people without their — or their families’ — consent.
It begs the question of when Jonhson reportedly said, “let the bodies pile high”, what exact bodies he meant.
The Government’s lack of concern over disabled people’s struggles continued into 2021, with their Health and Disability Green Paper spending page after page trying to justify why public spending on disability welfare needs to be less rather than more.
The proposal of merging the cruel and archaic assessment system for Personal Independence Payment with Universal Credit coming weeks after scrapping the £20 Universal Credit uplift in a move Disability UK described as effectively “slamming the door in the faces” of disabled people.
And then in February this year, The Guardian revealed the full extent of how disproportionate DNRs impacted people with learning disabilities. This included Mencap reporting how multiple people with learning disabilities disclosed how they were told that if they were to fall ill with COVID-19, medical staff wouldn’t resuscitate them.
This came simultaneously to reports of how 80% of people with learning disabilities who died in January died due to COVID, with the Government also at that time refusing to put people with learning disabilities on a priority vaccination list.
For the third time in a year, the national press recently highlighted reports of GPs issuing DNRs on disabled people without their informed consent in the national media — but the fact that this is continuing to happen, that health providers feel that they can even get away with this despite it being highlighted numerous times is incredibly telling.
The Government’s action (or instead, inaction) in regards to disabled people during the pandemic is at best, severe negligence and at worst, sinister eugenics.
So while our Prime Minister waxes lyrical about this “incomparably better” year and advises the public on New Year’s Resolutions, here’s a few for him and his Government to mull over with their wine and cheese:
First and foremost, there are the DNR orders.
Where are the public statements, condemnations and pledges to do something about this?
Buried deeply and discreetly in the depths of their website, the Care Quality Commission’s inquiry of the issue released in full in March this year (which came out a month later than it should have) doesn’t come anywhere close to tackling this problem.
Nine months after the report was published, The Telegraph found that multiple disabled people – such as people on the autism spectrum – were still being coerced or hit with DNRs against their will.
If anything, it’s getting worse. It’s bad enough that the general public pretends to be shocked by how DNRs are being used on disabled people every few months — but I’d expect more from our Government.
They need to act fast and act now: hold GPs to account, show disabled people they care by publicly condemning this state murder and enacting some – or at least any kind of action – in response to the troubling CQC report. Nine months on from its publication, we need action, not words.
Secondly, as Omicron continues to surge across the UK, they need to offer more explicit guidance and financial support for disabled people classed as clinically vulnerable.
During the first pandemic, disabled people who were clinically vulnerable were able to shield, and received accommodations in terms of accessibility of essentials and financial compensation for being unable to work in person.
But despite evidence showing that vaccine antibodies are less effective in clinically vulnerable people than the rest of the population, no such accommodations have returned. This means that clinically vulnerable disabled people face a choice between shielding of their own accord despite the financial/accessibility implications or putting themselves at real risk of illness or death on account of the Government’s lack of accommodations.
It’s irresponsible for the Government to keep the clinically vulnerable in limbo like this: they have a responsibility to give them more clarity.
Thirdly, they need to do more to tackle the social and accessibility issues specifically facing disabled people.
In April 2021, the Office for National Statistics found that 40% of disabled people said the pandemic had disrupted their access to healthcare for non-COVID-related issues. Two months earlier, they also reported that 46% of disabled people said the pandemic had negatively impacted their mental health compared to 29% of non-disabled people.
The accessibility of psychological and physical healthcare for everyone is obviously essential, but due to the disproportionate impact this lack of accessibility is having on disabled people, it is clear that the Government needs to implement a more dedicated roll-out of these services: either through more funding, or a dedicated prioritisation system.
Finally, as simple as it sounds, they just need to show that they respect us.
As anti-maskers continue to boast on social media about how they buy the sunflower lanyard online to avoid wearing a bit of cloth on their face, the Government needs to take a stand: doing more to crack down on this misuse and misappropriation of the sunflower lanyard, which, for many disabled people, is about a lot more than wearing masks.
Ultimately the Government needs to lead by example: taking decisive action that shows they want to protect our lives and actually value us as human beings.
This means that they need to speak up for our rights more, stop treating our deaths as a “lesser” afterthought and most controversially, actually follow public health rules they themselves put in place.
In 2022, the Government needs to show that they care about disabled people because if they don’t, how the hell can we expect anyone else to?
All we’re asking for is the bare minimum.
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