Coronavirus: Supermarkets face ‘biggest class action of its kind’ over discrimination claims

More than 200 disabled people have signed up for a class action against UK supermarkets over allegations that they have discriminated against them during the coronavirus crisis, in what is believed to be the biggest legal case of its kind.

So far, 213 disabled people have told solicitors Fry Law they want to take a legal case for discrimination* under the Equality Act against a supermarket for failing to make the reasonable adjustments necessary for them to be able to shop safely during the pandemic.

Many have found it impossible to order home deliveries online, because they are not in the small proportion of disabled people seen by the government as being “extremely clinically vulnerable” to COVID-19.

But about a third of the 213 claimants are in that small group and have still faced problems securing groceries during the pandemic crisis.

Some of the claimants could shop safely in-store if their local supermarket was willing to make reasonable adjustments for them, but are prevented from doing so, for example, by having to queue to enter the store – with no seats while they are waiting – or not being allowed to bring a companion with them to help them shop.

Four-fifths of those bringing cases have been required to shield themselves at home for 12 weeks or cannot access a supermarket without assistance.

About two-fifths of the cases so far involve Sainsbury’s, nearly a third involve Tesco, with about one in seven mentioning Asda, while about one in 12 concerns Morrisons.

More than a half have already lodged their own complaints with a supermarket but have been ignored.

Chris Fry, founder of Fry Law, said he believed it was now the biggest legal case ever taken in the UK on disability discrimination in the provision of services, and that disabled people were “taking on the policies of the supermarket giants”.

He said: “This is the highest number of cases on a single issue that I think there has ever been in terms of consumer-related discrimination cases.

“I can’t think of any other situation where in terms of disability rights in a consumer context there has ever been such a high number of people challenging over the same issues, so we are breaking new ground on this.”

Fry Law is taking the cases on a no-win no-fee basis, but because of the COVID-19 crisis it has decided not to take any success fees – usually 25 per cent of the pay-out in such cases – if its clients secure any damages.

Fry’s team is working with barristers at Cloisters chambers, led by discrimination law expert Catherine Casserley, and they have already begun sending out letters of claim to supermarkets.

Meanwhile, the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has written to the British Retail Consortium (BRC) to raise its own concerns about the failure of supermarkets to make reasonable adjustments for disabled customers.

EHRC said its concerns included the availability of online deliveries, long queues in stores, changes to policies on accompanied shopping, and inaccessible websites and telephone helplines.

Rebecca Hilsenrath, EHRC’s chief executive, says in the letter: “I am writing to ask you to contact your members as a matter of urgency and highlight the need to respond with compassion, flexibility and understanding to meet the needs of disabled people and ensure that no customer is forgotten about.”

A BRC spokesperson said it was still examining the EHRC letter and considering how to respond, and would not comment on an ongoing legal case.

But Andrew Opie, BRC’s director of food and sustainability, said retailers were working with the government to identify and support “elderly, vulnerable and disabled customers”, increasing delivery capacity, prioritising deliveries to these groups where possible and “encouraging those who are able to shop in-store to do so”.

He added: “It would be impossible to deliver to all of the 11-plus million people classified as long term ill, impaired or disabled in the UK.”

*To request that your case is added to the legal action, complete and submit this form

**Links to sources of information and support during the coronavirus pandemic include the following:


Inclusion London

Disability Rights UK

The Department of Health and Social Care

National Survivor User Network

Spinal Injuries Association

COVID Mutual Aid UK

Disability North

Disability Wales

Citizens Advice

23 April 2020


Coronavirus: ‘Supermarket discrimination risks lives and causes pain and distress’

Disabled people have described the pain and distress they have endured in attempting to buy food during the COVID-19 crisis, with many forced to put up with clear discrimination from their local supermarket.

The accounts collected by Disability News Service (DNS) over the last week build a picture of disabled people struggling to feed themselves, and having to put the health of themselves and their families at risk, while supermarkets fail to adjust their policies and procedures to take account of the barriers their disabled customers are facing.

DNS has heard this week from eight disabled people who say they have faced discrimination from supermarkets as they have attempted to buy food during the COVID-19 crisis.

Their accounts come as solicitors report that more than 200 disabled people are set to take a legal class action for disability discrimination against supermarkets because of the discrimination they say they have faced while trying to buy groceries during the coronavirus crisis (see separate story)*.

Meanwhile, the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has written to the British Retail Consortium (BRC) to raise its own concerns about the failure of supermarkets to make reasonable adjustments for disabled customers.

EHRC said its concerns included the availability of online deliveries, the impact of long queues in stores, changes to policies on accompanied shopping, and inaccessible websites and telephone helplines.

Among those particularly hard-hit, according to the accounts heard by DNS this week, are autistic people and those with long-term health conditions who have not been able to secure home deliveries by booking online and say they have faced discrimination when they have had to visit stores instead.

Jacy Chimes is autistic and both her parents have long-term health conditions, including her father, who has been told to self-isolate at home in Surrey.

She says her family have been unable to secure a home delivery from Sainsbury’s.

Her 70-year-old mother, who provides support for her daughter, has found shopping early in the morning during the times kept aside by many supermarkets for “elderly and vulnerable customers” just “defeats the objective” because it is busier than shopping later in the day.

Jacy needs her mother with her when they are shopping but they have to enter separately because the store will not allow them in together, even though she wears her “hidden disabilities sunflower lanyard”.

Jacy said: “The store won’t let her in with me despite her being my carer.

“The only way round this was for one of us to go in first and then wait for the other to come in a little while after. But it’s still distressing.”

They were told it was “store policy” to allow only one adult per household, despite Jacy’s lanyard and the fact that they do not live together.

She said this was putting her mother’s health at risk.

But Jacy said: “She is being put at risk because of these bumbled methods, which are causing more harm than good.

“A 10-minute trip has turned into a much longer one, meaning we are surrounded by people a lot longer than we should be.”

Another autistic person who has faced barriers in trying to secure food during the pandemic is Sarah, who also has multiple chronic health conditions.

She has had to cope with waiting in a queue for 45 minutes, growing increasingly dizzy, because of the lack of seating provided by her local Sainsbury’s store in west London.

She has also been affected by stores that only allow in one person per household.

She shops both at the Sainsbury’s store, and a smaller Co-op store, and says the restrictions at Sainsbury’s have been “zero tolerance without the necessary nuance”.

Sarah said: “Disabled people are being consciously let down by these rules.”

Her experience at the Co-op store in Iver Heath, near Slough, has been of customers rushing other shoppers through the store, which she said was not the fault of staff “who were doing their best to keep people safe and at safe distances”.

She normally shops with her partner, who reminds her what she needs to buy, but has had to shop alone because of the strict rules imposed by the supermarkets, who she has seen turn away pairs of people from the same household.

She said: “I would prefer to be able to go with support, but I know that would instantly identify me as disabled and I would face further discrimination from other shoppers [and] my local supermarket have been extremely strict on one person per household.

“I always wear my sunflower lanyard as I can typically become overwhelmed by the sensory aspects of shopping and needing to remember everything I need to get.”

But she said: “Staff often saw my lanyard and then looked away or were chatting to other staff less than two metres away.

“Once in the shop I might as well have not worn the lanyard, as it meant nothing to staff or other shoppers.”

For those local supermarkets with a set route that shoppers have to take, she finds herself “forced around at a faster pace than I can mentally manage and I’m left at the end of my shop without my essentials as I was rushed”.

For those without a set route, “other members of the public often get too close and I try to follow my usual routine of how I use the shop”.

Either way, the experience is “emotionally and physically draining as no reasonable adjustments are put in place or recognised”.

One disabled woman, Lorna, has praised her local Sainsbury’s in Canley, Coventry, which has allowed her to wait near the entrance for a minute or two before starting her shop – after checking her blue parking badge – rather than joining the queue, and which she said had been “brilliant”.

She said her local Asda store had a similar policy.

But she contrasted that with her experience at the local Costco store, which her family has to pay a membership fee to use.

When she explained to a member of staff that she could not queue because of her impairment, she was told: “So what? Go and wait.”

Her husband, who himself is at risk because of health conditions including asthma, had to reserve her a place in the queue, which she took over when he reached the entrance.

She lodged a complaint about her treatment, but has so far had no response.

The second time she had a similar experience at Costco, she complained again about staff rudeness and the discrimination she faced.

This time a manager phoned back two days later, and told her the store was trying to get “as many people in as possible” and could not give her priority access because “it may be the difference between someone getting toilet rolls and not getting them”.

Eventually, he told her not to return to the store until the pandemic crisis was over.

Lorna said: “I have been back to the shop but my husband has had to stand in the queue and then once at the doors I’ve got out the car and gone in, for which I’ve had terrible looks from other shoppers.”

She has complained to Costco head office but has yet to receive a reply.

Tracey Thompson, from Marton, Middlesbrough, has been unable to secure an online order since 14 March, even though she had previously had a regular order with Asda and Tesco for more than a year.

She said she was lucky that she has been in isolation with her son and daughter-in-law.

She said: “If I hadn’t had people to shop for me, I would have been stuck with no food.

“I know these are unprecedented times, I totally get that and I’m lucky in the fact I have family and friends to help if needed, but I feel so sorry for people who don’t.”

Disabled campaigner and retired Paralympian Chris Channon has been unable to place an order for a supermarket delivery for weeks, even though he relied totally on the service from Sainsbury’s before the crisis.

His last delivery was just before the crisis hit, even though he receives the enhanced rates of personal independence payment for both daily living and mobility.

He said: “I have been housebound since suffering an injury to my neck in 2008 as well as having cerebral palsy from birth.

“The government told everyone that vulnerable people would be given priority delivery slots.

“Naturally I thought I’d qualify given my issues but I was amazed to find that they are not listed on the government website and therefore I cannot get a delivery.

“I’m self-isolating because I don’t fancy my chances with this disease and I’m certainly not confident that they would allow me to occupy an intensive treatment unit bed.

“Yet at the very time that I need my independence it’s been taken away from me by some bureaucratic decision that has been taken by someone who has no reality of the situation on the ground.”

He added: “Yes, I have a few friends who have kindly offered to help.

“But because they can only get a few items at a time it means a greater exposure risk to me and how do I pay them?

“I don’t have much cash and I’m certainly not giving anyone my credit card details.

“So basically I’m in the lurch, genuinely scared for my life while trying to sustain myself with ever more inventive ways of eating rice or pasta.”

Martin**, a disabled Methodist preacher, has been unable to secure an online delivery from Sainsbury’s, even though his wife has been registered with the government as one of those most at risk from the virus.

Before lockdown, they had been using the online service for three years and he has been a Sainsbury’s customer for 20 years.

One week, Martin tried the Sainsbury’s helpline more than 350 times without getting through.

They managed one home delivery – “by luck” – from Sainsbury’s, before he was also registered by the government as being in the highest risk category.

But this made no difference and they were unable to secure any more delivery slots. His wife has now managed to register with Tesco and they have a delivery booked for next week.

They have survived only through the help of their son.

Martin said: “Online deliveries are a lifeline for disabled people.

“There will be people who are vulnerable, but have other options – like us, to be honest – and there are disabled people who aren’t recognised and have no options.”

He added: “The system that’s been put in place has not been thought through.”

One DNS reader said on Facebook said he had not been included in the government’s register of those at most risk, even though he has asthma, cardiomyopathy and diabetes.

Since an accident five years ago, he has had deliveries from Asda but is no longer able to secure a slot, and so he has to queue for up to 45 minutes at his local store, which causes severe pain.

He uses two crutches and has no help, and he can only manage one bag at a time, and so has to visit the supermarket three times a week.

Another disabled shopper, David**, who lives near Peterborough, said the online supermarket Ocado had refused to allow him to book a delivery, even though he is registered as being in the highest risk group, because he had not had an Ocado delivery since May 2017.

He was told by Ocado’s customer service department: “We can confirm that you are on the government’s shield list but we have not been able to identify you on our database as a regular Ocado customer.

“Unfortunately, this means we are unable to offer you priority access to

“We would love to be serving everyone but the level of demand we’re currently experiencing is several times our current capacity.

“This is a cross-industry initiative and we encourage you to get in touch with your regular supermarket for your current grocery needs.”

David said that what annoyed him most was Ocado’s repeated use of the excuse that it was “only obeying government orders”.

He added: “When questioned, they initially agreed to see if they could provide me with the government directions, then said they weren’t sure if they could, then they just ignored me.”

Ocado describes itself as “the world’s largest dedicated online supermarket”, with a 15 per cent share of the UK online grocery market.

David has managed to find slots with other supermarkets, but his wife told DNS that Ocado should be “doing its bit”.

She said: “They claim to deliver to 60 per cent of UK households so it seems highly unlikely that all their capacity is taken up with just ‘regular customers’ who are also on the shield list.”

Costco had not responded to a request to comment by noon today (Thursday).

Asda declined to comment on the provision of reasonable adjustments in its stores.

But an Asda spokesperson said it was able to use some of the data provided by the government to “help those people who have been identified as highly vulnerable get what they need and are protected from COVID-19.

“We are also using our own volunteer card scheme to try and use the fantastic NHS volunteer system to get much-needed supplies to those who need them.

“We’re doing all we can – and would continue to urge customers who are able to visit shops to think of how they can support others in their community and if they can shop for them – allowing us to maximise our online capacity for those who need it most.”

A Tesco spokesperson said: “The government has provided us with a list of people who are considered clinically vulnerable with no support network. We are prioritising these customers.

“We have doubled the number of online weekly slots in recent weeks to serve as many vulnerable customers as we possibly can at this difficult time.

“We’re also now actively working with government to see how we can increase our capacity against an expanded list of people who may not be on their clinically vulnerable list, but who may need our support.”

She said Tesco had so far offered priority slots to 230,000 people, and was also working with the governments in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

She said Tesco had added nearly 200 new vans and recruited another 2,500 drivers and more than 5,000 pickers to meet demand, and was working to increase capacity.

An Ocado spokesperson said: “We are working around the clock to deliver as much food to as many homes as possible.

“Demand continues to be unprecedented, several times our current capacity.

“Like all supermarkets, we have been sent a list from the government of extremely vulnerable people who need essential supplies and we are contacting our customers on the list to offer them priority access to”

Sainsbury’s did not respond to a request to comment, but has previously said that it was “committed to serving the nation’s most vulnerable people”, had been the first supermarket to prioritise all its delivery slots for “elderly and vulnerable customers” and had “significantly increased” its home delivery service.

Sainsbury’s has also said that it allows personal assistants or carers to accompany “elderly or vulnerable customers” on their shopping trips.

*To request that your case is added to the legal action, complete and submit this form

**Not his real name

***Links to sources of information and support during the coronavirus pandemic include the following:


Inclusion London

Disability Rights UK

The Department of Health and Social Care

National Survivor User Network

Spinal Injuries Association

COVID Mutual Aid UK

Disability North

Disability Wales

Citizens Advice

23 April 2020


New shadow minister pledges ‘better and wider engagement’ with disabled people#

Labour’s new shadow minister for disabled people has pledged to be a “good listener” and to ensure that her party considers the impact on disabled people of every one of its policies.

Vicky Foxcroft was speaking to Disability News Service (DNS) in her first in-depth interview since being appointed as the shadow minister for disabled people by Labour’s new leader, Keir Starmer.

She has pledged her commitment to an inclusive education system, and a national – and free – independent living support service for England, an idea proposed by the disabled people’s movement.

Foxcroft also supports calls from grassroots disabled activists – backed by DNS – for an independent inquiry into evidence that the actions of senior civil servants and former ministers at the Department for Work and Pensions are linked to the deaths of countless benefit claimants.

Foxcroft replaces Marsha de Cordova, one of parliament’s few disabled MPs, who Starmer has promoted to shadow secretary of state for women and equalities.

Responding to the COVID-19 crisis has been a priority for her since her appointment less than two weeks ago, Foxcroft told DNS this week.

Among the issues she has been focusing on are the many disabled people struggling to secure food for themselves during the pandemic, which she has raised in a letter to the minister for disabled people; the shortage of personal protective equipment for disabled people and their care workers and personal assistants; growing concerns about the number of deaths in care homes; and the funding challenges facing charities, something she also raised in her previous post as shadow minister for civil society.

She also highlights the need to keep a close watch on the actions of local authorities, after the government’s emergency Coronavirus Act reduced their duties under the Care Act.

Under the emergency act, councils no longer have to carry out detailed assessments of disabled people’s care and support needs, and no longer have a legal duty to meet all eligible care and support needs.

Foxcroft said it was vital to ensure that local authorities do not use the act as a way to reduce disabled people’s support packages.

She is also pushing for the government to make similar increases to legacy benefits – such as employment and support allowance and jobseeker’s allowance – that they have to the universal credit standard allowance, one of the government’s coronavirus emergency measures.

And she says she hopes the government’s temporary halt to face-to-face benefit assessments for personal independence payment – which she says are “not a good experience for most people” and are often “intrusive and derogatory” – could be continued when the lockdown is lifted.

Foxcroft was also speaking publicly for the first time about her diagnosis last June with rheumatoid arthritis.

That diagnosis means she is on immunosuppressant medication that places her among those most at serious risk from COVID-19, and that she will have to remain in self-isolation for as long as the advice from government health experts recommends.

She stresses, though, that – despite having to remain in self-isolation until the crisis is over – she does not currently consider herself a disabled person, because the medication she is taking means the arthritis is in remission and does not have a significant impact on her day-to-day life.

But she believes the health condition will give her more of an insight into the barriers faced by disabled people, although she says she thinks she was chosen for the role because of her previous position as shadow civil society minister rather than her experience of impairment.

Asked what she believes she will bring to the new role, she says: “I think I am quite a good listener. I think that’s important in politics.”

Part of her role, she says, will be to ensure disabled people “feel comfortable and try to get them to be able to confidently give their ideas and thoughts” on policy, and do not feel they are being listened to in a “token” way, and that they believe that she and her colleagues will “do something” with what they are told.

Despite her health condition, and her understanding of the need to be a shadow minister for “disabled people”, rather than for “people with disabilities”, she admits that she cannot yet explain the meaning of the social model of disability*.

But she says: “Without knowing the exact terminology, that is exactly where my views, my experiences… it is about the barriers, rather than judging the person [on their impairment].”

She has started on the process of engaging with disabled people and their organisations, but it has been made much tougher by the COVID-19 pandemic and the UK’s current state of lockdown.

Among those organisations she has spoken with online are her local disabled people’s organisation Lewisham Disability Coalition, and her own constituency Labour party’s forum of disabled people.

She says she is determined to ensure that Labour improves how it engages with disabled people and does it “better and wider”, and that it takes account of disability in every one of its policies, rather than concentrating solely on a disability manifesto.

She says: “Obviously there are challenges at the moment in terms of getting about and seeing people but it’s something I am very keen on.

“I think that things need to be more than just a disability manifesto.

“Right the way through everything, when we are developing policy, there needs to be a test in terms of how disabled people feel and the disabled community feel about things that we are doing.

“The best way of doing that is by doing that in collaboration [with disabled people].”

She adds: “I want us to win the next general election and I think a big part of that will be making sure that the disabled community feel confident that the Labour government will deliver for them.

“And that confidence will be earned by making sure that we have thoroughly engaged with disabled people, organisations, etcetera.”

Foxcroft draws parallels between her new role and her previous work setting up and chairing the cross-party Youth Violence Commission.

She arranged a debate in parliament that called for the commission to be set up, following the deaths of five young people and an increase in knife crime in her constituency.

The commission’s work persuaded the government to take a more public health approach to youth violence, with different agencies working together, a cross-departmental approach that she believes must be repeated with disability policy.

On one of the key disability policy issues, she says she is a firm believer that every child should have the right to a fully inclusive education.

She said: “When you exclude people from mainstream society, you’re making them feel like they don’t fit in.

“Obviously there is a lot of extra investment that needs to go in, but I honestly don’t see why that can’t happen and shouldn’t happen. I think everybody should have the opportunity to be educated [in a mainstream setting].

“I do think it has to be a choice, but it has to be an open choice. I think we have a better society if we do that.”

She is also supportive of the call from the disabled people’s movement for a National Independent Living Support Service (NILSS) for England, with all social care to be provided free, just as healthcare is provided free through the NHS.

Starmer told DNS during his leadership election campaign that he supported the idea of an NILSS, funded by progressive taxation, and that he would want to work with party members to develop the motion backing NILSS that was agreed at last autumn’s party conference.

Foxcroft, who is a former local councillor in south London, and was a trade unionist who led campaigns against low pay and exploitation of agency workers, says she wants disabled people “to know that they can contact us to feed in what they think we should be doing.

“I want to make sure that disabled people’s voices are at the heart in terms of us writing our next manifesto.”

*The social model says that disability is caused by barriers in society rather than by a person’s impairment

23 April 2020


ROFA conference sees calls for charities to make way for DPOs

Disabled people’s organisations have called on charities that are not user-led to “move over and stop taking our space”.

The calls came during the Reclaiming Our Futures Alliance (ROFA) national conference, which had been due to take place in Manchester, but is instead being held online over two days because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

A string of disabled activists and representatives of disabled people’s organisations (DPOs) spoke during the first day of the conference (Wednesday) of their frustration at being excluded from discussions with central and local government because of the continuing influence of large, non-user-led charities.

Only a few hours later, the government’s new Disability Unit tweeted how the minister for disabled people, Justin Tomlinson, had spoken with representatives of two of those non-user-led charities, Leonard Cheshire and Scope, about support for disabled people during the COVID-19 crisis.

Among those raising concerns at the ROFA conference about the continuing influence of the charities was Andrew Lee, director of People First (Self Advocacy), who said: “One idea I have about the government speaking to non-user-led organisations is to do a campaign to say that they do not speak for us.

“Speak directly to the groups on the ground and speak to people directly.”

He said that when non-user-led organisations comment on key issues, it should be pointed out publicly that they have “a conflict of interest because they run a service” or represent a particular group, such as parents, and that “they are not speaking for us”.

Tracey Lazard, chief executive of Inclusion London, suggested a campaign to “call out the charities and tell them to move over and stop taking our space”.

Richard Rieser, from the Commonwealth Disabled People’s Forum, which was relaunched last June, said the big charities were “just moving in and taking our clothes”, and he called for a “stronger international voice” to challenge what they were doing.

Simone Aspis, who leads the Free Our People campaign, spoke of her concerns about non-disabled people “hijacking the agenda”.

Mike Steel, from the grassroots disabled people’s organisation Bristol Reclaiming Independent Living (BRIL), said the influence of the charities meant that local grassroots and community groups were excluded from decision-making.

He said: “Charities get the invites. The voluntary sector competes with each other and speaks ‘for’ – not ‘with’ or ‘by’ – disabled people and mental health service-users/survivors and self-advocates.

“Working-class, rural, impairment-specific, asylum-seekers and self-organised groups are not supported to take part.”

Mark Harrison, from ROFA, who was chairing the session, told Steel: “Yes, that’s not just a regional issue, that’s a national issue, with national government as well as local government.”

Another disabled activist warned of “non-disabled allies taking over from us”, which she said was often an issue within unions, with funding often “hoovered up”.

And another activist said she shared the frustration at “the same charities being the only ones consulted by government”.

More than 60 disabled activists took part in the online conference, representing grassroots organisations and disabled people’s organisations from across England, and updating colleagues on their work and campaigning priorities and their response to the pandemic.

Dorothy Gould spoke about the work of ROFA’s independent living campaign group, which is pushing for a new independent living strategy, enshrined in UK law and based on article 19 of the UN disability convention, and which would include an end to compulsory admissions to psychiatric hospitals and forced treatment and community treatment orders.

This would happen through a new national independent living service (NILS), co-created by the government and Deaf and disabled people, and funded through general taxation, with local delivery in full co-production with Deaf and disabled people.

She said there was a need for a “common message about what we mean by independent living under article 19”, and a communications strategy that uses creative ways to promote the campaign.

Ann Galpin, co-chair of the TUC disabled workers’ committee, spoke of the growing links between disabled people’s organisations and the unions.

She said that her co-chair, Sean McGovern, was at the TUC’s general council meeting where he was due to ask the new Labour leader Keir Starmer whether Labour would support the call for the creation of a new national independent living service.

Tracey Lazard, from Inclusion London, said her organisation’s campaigning had led to more than 2,000 people writing to MPs within 72 hours with concerns about the government’s emergency Coronavirus Act, including about its impact on social care.

She said: “This combination of supporting legal action coupled with grassroots campaigning and also grassroots research… is a really effective combination.”

She warned that there would soon be a “huge push” to integrate health and social care, and that “we know what will dominate: a health-medicalised model”.

Akiko Hart, chief executive of the National Survivor User Network, said her organisation – like others – had been “completely overwhelmed” over the last few weeks since the onset of the pandemic crisis.

She said: “We need to think about how we work together and pool our resources because I think it’s impossible for any one of us to cover the things we normally cover, given how things are changing all the time and how we are bombarded with information.”

She said NSUN had received “really concerning” reports of people in mental distress being left with little or no support because of community mental health teams being depleted in the fallout from COVID-19.

Julie Jaye Charles, former chief executive of Equalities National Council, said she was setting up a new organisation of black and minority ethnic (BAME) disabled people, Start Change: The People’s Council.

She said this would enable BAME communities “to have our own voices, to get our own voices heard” rather than being “ignored by government”.

She added later: “I think it’s time now that the disability movement recognises that ‘nothing about us without us’ includes the voices of BAME communities and particularly those detained, black men in the criminal justice system [and] disabled black women.

“We need help to recognise that we are there… but the disability movement has not pushed our agenda enough, has not supported us enough.”

She said that was why her new organisation was going to be “quite strong” and “might shock some of you”.

Jo Whittaker, from The Alliance for Inclusive Education, said: “One of the things that has really come about as a result of the COVID virus is a recognition of our inter-dependence on each other, the importance of that solidarity and the importance of our coming together to challenge what has been for many of us over many, many years undermining and devaluing of disabled people.

“The greater we can come together and work collectively, the more we can make that challenge.”

He pointed to the increased abuse of disabled learners in institutionalised, residential settings and the importance of inclusive education.

He said ALLFIE had submitted a petition of nearly 109,000 signatures to the government to push for the end of segregated settings and ensure disabled learners have full access to an inclusive learning environment with the appropriate support.

Andrew Lee, from People First (Self Advocacy), said his organisation had been involved in online conferences with people with learning difficulties who were feeling isolated as a result of the pandemic, with support in some areas “non-existent”.

He said: “What we have found with talking to people with learning difficulties [online] is in different parts of the country, particularly in the north-west… people with learning difficulties are going without the support they need.”

He added: “There is a big issue around people with learning difficulties getting food.”

Richard Rieser, from the Commonwealth Disabled People’s Forum, said there was a need for solidarity with disabled people in other parts of the world, where disabled people were even worse off during the pandemic than they were in the UK.

Michelle Daley, speaking about ROFA’s international work, said there was much that disabled people in the UK could learn, during the COVID-19 crisis, from disabled people in other countries.

She said: “This is an excellent time right now for ROFA international to be playing a role and saying, look, how we can learn from what other DPOs are doing internationally in terms of crisis, conflict, wars, disasters, hurricanes.

“There are some massive learnings in how we can make sure that disabled people are part of [responding to a] crisis because this is a massive crisis we are going through.

“We can learn from our disabled brothers and sisters. It’s time to unite.”

Eleanor Lisney, from the disabled women’s collective Sisters of Frida, said she and her colleagues were working – with other women’s organisations – on a joint urgent call for action from the UK government on the impact of COVID-19 on women and girls.

She said: “The work we are doing is trying to make sure that disabled women are visible.

“What is especially important is the violence against women, which is really difficult for disabled women who are at greater risk of domestic abuse due to COVID-19.”

Mike Steel, from BRIL, said many disabled people in Bristol felt the meaning of independent living had been “hijacked” and used to justify cuts to their support.

BRIL also said it had found out from a local councillor in Bristol that – during the COVID-19 crisis – only 50 sets of personal protective equipment had gone out to users of direct payments in the city.

Dr Ju Gosling, co-chair of Regard, the national LGBTQI+ disabled people’s organisation, spoke of the lack of support from the wider LGBTQI+ community over their concerns about the impact of the Coronavirus Act and the right to social care.

She added: “Nobody is asking for our input into any government strategy at the moment. Nobody is listening to us.”

And she said: “We need to be closing care homes and certainly what our communities need is proper care in the community.”

Anne Pridmore, director of Being the Boss, a user-led organisation which supports disabled people who employ personal assistants (PAs), spoke of national research Being the Boss had carried out on the impact of the closure of the Independent Living Fund.

Among the findings were that recruiting and retaining PAs had become more difficult, while there had been a growing lack of understanding of independent living among social care and NHS service-providers, and an “increasing emphasis on health over social care”.

She also said that many of those who took part in the research said they had chosen to stop receiving council-funded care because they could not afford the charges.

Disabled activist Simone Aspis, who leads the Free Our People campaign, said the fallout from the COVID-19 crisis included delays in disabled people being discharged from assessment and treatment units (ATUs) and in the planning of appropriate community care packages for those trying to leave ATUs, as well as the cancelling of leave and banning visitors for disabled people in segregated mental health settings.

She said: “We have got a lawyer on board and are seeking to challenge the blanket policies that seem to be arising from COVID-19.”

23 April 2020


Coronavirus: PA guidance is finally published… five weeks late

Ministers have finally published guidance that should help disabled people who employ their own personal assistants (PAs) to stay safe during the coronavirus pandemic, but activists say the delay in producing the document has put lives at risk.

The guidance for people receiving direct payments was published by the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) on Tuesday, following weeks of mounting criticism from disabled activists.

It was published more than five weeks after DHSC produced written advice for the wider social care sector that ignored the needs of disabled people who receive direct payments to employ PAs, and more than a month-and-a-half after DHSC published its first COVID-19 action plan (on 3 March).

Disability News Service (DNS) has been asking the department since 17 March why it had failed to publish guidance for employers of PAs.

Asked to explain the delay, DHSC had failed to respond by noon today (Thursday).

An estimated 70,000 disabled people employ PAs through direct payments.

The new guidance – published alongside a series of questions and answers based on concerns raised by members of the public – includes steps that employers of PAs should take if their PAs become ill with coronavirus; what steps they should take if their PA suspects they have COVID-19; and what they should do if they suspect they have coronavirus themselves.

There is also advice for employers of PAs on when to use personal protective equipment (PPE) and how to source it.

Baroness [Jane] Campbell, the disabled crossbench peer who has repeatedly pushed the government to publish guidance, welcomed its publication, and particularly a section that said there should be a “more flexible approach” taken to how direct payments are used.

She said: “Some local authorities have refused to allow disabled people to employ family or friends and now it’s clear that they should not refuse.”

Disabled activists, including the grassroots disabled people’s organisation Bristol Reclaiming Independent Living (BRIL), have previously said that the government’s failure to publish the guidance would not be forgotten, and had put disabled people’s lives at risk.

BRIL said last night (Wednesday) that it believed the document was flawed.

BRIL’s Mark Williams said: “We are very worried how long it has taken for the government to issue these guidelines.

“Now that they have arrived they seem to be completely out of sync with the reality of this crisis, and the situation on the ground. And there still seem to be significant gaps.

“It uses blanket categorisations with confusing terms such as ‘vulnerable’, and ‘extremely vulnerable’, and does not take into account that many people do not know where they ‘fit’ within these definitions.

“The suggestion to explore ‘alternative arrangements’ (contingency plans) is not very practical for many people – including those in my situation – and lacks any specific examples.

“The suggestions to use family and friendship networks to patch together care will not be possible for many, and makes huge assumptions.

“The guidance to source your own PPE from ‘preferred suppliers’ in a time of global shortage and spiralling prices is outrageous.”

Mike Steel, also from BRIL, said: “Hundreds of thousands of disabled people, PAs and family members have been waiting weeks for national guidance on keeping themselves and others safe.

“In its absence, local authorities have been left to make things up as they go along, with disabled people’s organisations and voluntary groups struggling to fill the gaps.

“People with direct payments for NHS continuing healthcare also seem to have been forgotten by central government.

“The more detailed advice on flexible use of funding is welcome, but we fear this may be too late for some – this is a potentially life-threatening situation.”

He said advice had previously “varied widely” across the country, with both disabled people and PAs in the south-west telling BRIL they were worried and had either been sent no information, or that online guidance was not accessible.

One contact had described the situation as a “fiasco”, said Steel.

He said Bristol City Council council had admitted that only a small number of disabled people on direct payments had received PPE so far.

It came as one Labour councillor admitted publicly on social media that sourcing PPE was “becoming increasingly difficult” for the Labour-run council, so it was now appealing for “any available stock, donations, leads or innovative ideas”.

Caroline Miles, a BRIL member, said issuing guidance at such a late stage was “virtually a nonsense, setting out simplistic scenarios that some people have already had to deal with without guidance and which are inappropriate for many others”.

But she said the separate question and answer document was “quite helpful and the request for more questions to be submitted for future ‘editions’ is welcomed”.

Another BRIL member, George Ayres, added: “After five weeks we got a government guidance yesterday, with no easy read or British Sign Language versions, nor mentions of self-funders.

“Is it the case that the disabled population does not matter to the central government?”

Anne Pridmore, director of Being the Boss, a user-led organisation which supports disabled people who employ PAs, and who employs PAs herself, said she believed the delay in producing the guidance had put disabled people’s lives at risk.

She said: “I think it’s shocking the way people on direct payments have been treated.”

Pridmore is among the many disabled employers of PAs who have tried in vain to secure accurate answers to key questions from their local authorities, including on the PPE issue.

*Links to sources of information and support during the coronavirus pandemic include the following:


Inclusion London

Disability Rights UK

The Department of Health and Social Care

National Survivor User Network

Spinal Injuries Association

COVID Mutual Aid UK

Disability North

Disability Wales

Citizens Advice

23 April 2020


Coronavirus: Hancock refuses to publish treatment guidance

The government has refused to provide national guidance that would make it clear that disabled people have the same right to life-sustaining treatment as non-disabled people if they contract coronavirus.

Health and social care secretary Matt Hancock told lawyers for four disabled campaigners this week that there was no need for guidance on who would have priority for treatment if demand outstrips supply within the NHS in England, despite their “understandable fears and concerns”.

He said their action was “fundamentally misconceived” because there was enough capacity in the system to meet all needs for critical care during the COVID-19 pandemic – he said there were 2,657 critical care beds available on 15 April, while the number of new cases could now be decreasing – and described their concerns as “speculative and hypothetical”.

Hancock’s refusal to provide national guidance means that the four disabled campaigners will now seek legal aid for an urgent judicial review of the government’s failure.

They fear that if demand for treatment increases and they become ill with the virus, they and other disabled people will be viewed as less likely to benefit from such treatment than non-disabled people.

Doug Paulley, one of the four disabled people seeking to take the case, through the legal firm Rook Irwin Sweeney, said Hancock’s decision suggested he had “a crystal ball”.

But he said there was no guarantee that there would not be competition for critical care at some stage in the next few months.

He said: “I think he’s dodging the question and that is pretty shameful given that it’s a life and death matter for disabled people, or it will be if there is competition, and we can’t guarantee that there will not be competition.

“He can’t know for certain, and he’s gambling with disabled people’s lives.”

Paulley added: “I can’t see any downside to producing guidance. The medical staff on the frontline want it. They should not be the ones who decide who lives or dies.”

Rook Irwin Sweeney says the failure to produce guidance on how decisions will be made is discriminatory and a breach of its clients’ human rights.

The other three disabled claimants in the case are AB, a 28-year-old writer and policy advisor from London; 17-year-old Francesca Adam-Smith, whose mother is acting for her in the case; and 24-year-old William Runswick-Cole, whose mother is acting for him.

The legal action was inspired by an open letter, supported by more than 2,000 disabled people and allies, which warned that disabled people’s right to treatment in the NHS was not always being upheld during the pandemic.

*Links to sources of information and support during the coronavirus pandemic include the following:


Inclusion London

Disability Rights UK

The Department of Health and Social Care

National Survivor User Network

Spinal Injuries Association

COVID Mutual Aid UK

Disability North

Disability Wales

Citizens Advice

23 April 2020


Coronavirus: Trio of self-advocacy groups speak out on concerns

Three self-advocacy groups have spoken out on their concerns about the impact of the COVID-19 crisis on people with learning difficulties and autistic people.

People First (Self Advocacy), based in London; Change, based in Leeds; and Brighton and Hove Speak Out, have all highlighted concerns this week about how the crisis is affecting their rights.

People First and Change issued a joint statement (PDF) that raises fears that autistic people and those with learning difficulties might not receive the support they need to understand what was happening to them if they were admitted to hospital with coronavirus.

They said they were also scared that they might not receive equal treatment in hospital.

The two self-advocacy groups said they supported a statement – backed by more than 2,000 disabled people and allies – which has warned the government and NHS England that disabled people’s rights to treatment and care were “not always being upheld” during the crisis.

People First and Change said that some people with learning difficulties and autistic people were receiving less support as a result of the crisis, while some were receiving no support to help them understand what was happening, which meant many did not understand the “government jargon and messages”.

They said: “We are feeling cut off. We are feeling left out from society and alone.”

They called for accessible information; support to understand that information; and support to make decisions about their health.

They added: “We are scared that if we go into hospital, doctors and nurses will make a decision that means we won’t get equal treatment.”

And they said they feared that doctors and nurses might not know about the “great things” that people with learning difficulties do to make society a better place, and that they fear that hospital staff might think that their “lives don’t matter”.

Meanwhile, the Being Heard in Government group run by Brighton and Hove Speak Out has raised its own concerns about the impact of the pandemic on people with learning difficulties.

Rohan Lowe, a founder member, said his group was worried about the impact of the crisis on those with little or no support in their lives, who may not know what services were available to support them.

One person called Speak Out to ask how they could get some food, because they had run out and did not know they were allowed to leave their home to buy some more.

Others are still visiting friends and neighbours because they do not understand the rules and importance of social distancing.

Lowe said he was also concerned that some may not understand how to stay safe because they have no access to the internet or do not understand the news, while a letter written by the prime minister about coronavirus and sent out to households across the country was not accessible to many people with learning difficulties.

Others will struggle after losing their usual routines, with the anxiety of not knowing when the crisis will end, or will find it difficult to buy food.

Speak Out is now hoping to tell as many people with learning difficulties as possible in the Brighton and Hove area about its helpline.

The helpline* provides information on coronavirus, advocacy and support, and the opportunity to connect with other people, either through a regular phone conversation or by joining online groups.

*The helpline number is 01273 421921 and is run from 9am to 5pm every weekday, with more information on Speak Out’s website

**Links to sources of information and support during the coronavirus pandemic include the following:


Inclusion London

Disability Rights UK

The Department of Health and Social Care

National Survivor User Network

Spinal Injuries Association

COVID Mutual Aid UK

Disability North

Disability Wales

Citizens Advice

23 April 2020


Coronavirus round-up: Coalition speaks out, EHRC’s warning… and a vital survey

A coalition of disabled people’s organisations in Scotland has published a statement calling for “immediate action” to ensure access to healthcare for disabled people during the COVID-19 crisis, and to prevent “discriminatory denial” of health services.

The Scottish Independent Living Coalition has sent the statement to ministers, local government, the NHS and “many others who have a role to play in ensuring our human rights”.

They say in the statement that disabled people are “feeling pressured into agreeing to Do Not Resuscitate notices, or to not being admitted to hospital if they fall ill”, while “expressed wishes are not always being respected” and they are being “refused equal access to life-saving treatments”.

They say that disabled people in Scotland “are experiencing breaches to their human rights and discrimination” which “cannot be allowed to continue”.

Among their calls for “immediate action”, they say that decisions about someone’s access to healthcare “must be based only on expected health outcomes, not on disability status or use of social care or other support”, while disabled people receiving support must have access to the personal protective equipment they need.

And they call for a “fast-response service” that would allow concerns and complaints to be “raised and rapidly addressed”.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has warned of the risks to disabled people’s human rights posed by the rapid increase in the use of video technology in the criminal justice system in England and Wales during the COVID-19 crisis.

The commission spoke out as it released the interim findings of its inquiry into whether the criminal justice system treats disabled people fairly in England, Wales and Scotland.

It warned that there was a “heightened risk that disabled people may not be able to realise their right to a fair trial if their specific needs are not recognised and met during remote hearings”.

It highlighted the use of video hearings in England and Wales, which it said can “significantly hinder communication and understanding” for autistic people, people with learning difficulties, and people with mental health conditions.

It said that defendants’ needs “must be identified from the outset so that adjustments can be put in place”.

The interim report does not call for video and telephone hearings to be halted, but David Isaac, EHRC’s chair, said: “Our interim report shows that there currently isn’t enough evidence to determine how the design and implementation of video-links and digital justice impacts individuals.

“We make a number of recommendations to help reduce the risk that disabled people could be wrongly convicted or receive inappropriate sentences.

“Equality before the law means that no one defending themselves in court should be disadvantaged because they are disabled – even during a time of national crisis.”

Disabled people’s organisations across Greater Manchester are appealing for disabled people to take part in a survey that asks what issues they are facing during the COVID-19 crisis.

The survey was drawn up by the Greater Manchester Disabled People’s Panel, which scrutinises and advises the Labour mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham.

The panel plans to use the survey results to tell services across Greater Manchester how to meet disabled people’s support needs during the pandemic.

Although it focuses on Greater Manchester, disabled people from outside the area can also fill it in. The deadline for completion is 11 May.

The questions were drawn up by 14 disabled people’s organisations and groups across Greater Manchester, based on the issues and experiences their members are facing during the pandemic.

Local authorities in London have introduced changes to the city’s Taxicard system that should help some disabled people secure food and other essential supplies during the coronavirus crisis.

Taxicard has more than 60,000 members and provides subsidised door-to-door journeys in licensed taxis and private hire vehicles for London residents with significant mobility or visual impairments.

The changes mean that any Taxicard member can now ask drivers to pick up and deliver essential supplies to them.

It also allows them to nominate a friend, relative or care worker to use their Taxicard to buy or collect items on their behalf.

The Taxicard scheme is managed by London Councils, and is funded by London’s local authorities and Transport for London.

London Councils said the temporary measures would remain while the COVID-19 lockdown measures were in place.

23 April 2020


News provided by John Pring at