Coronavirus: Ministers’ failure on direct payments guidance ‘will not be forgotten’

Ministers have been warned that their lengthy delay in publishing guidance to help disabled people who use direct payments survive the coronavirus pandemic is risking lives across the country… and will not be forgotten.

The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) has finally confirmed to Disability News Service (DNS) that it will publish guidance, but this confirmation has come nearly three weeks after it produced guidance for the wider social care sector on 13 March.

DHSC published its action plan on dealing with COVID-19 even earlier, on 3 March, and was criticised then for saying little about social care, with disabled people warning about the potential impact on people who use direct payments to employ their own personal assistants (PAs).

DNS put questions to the department on 17 March on why it had failed to publish guidance for employers of PAs, and asking how users of direct payments would be able to secure vital supplies of personal protective equipment (PPE) to protect them and their PAs from the virus.

Among other key questions are what emergency contingency plans are in place for those PA employers who find themselves without staff at short notice because of a COVID-19 incident.

When it finally responded yesterday (1 April), DHSC said only that guidance for disabled people who use direct payments would be published “shortly”.

It said that PAs having difficulty obtaining PPE “should approach the local authority adult care service or CCG [clinical commissioning group] that provides the direct payment and ask for assistance”.

The grassroots disabled people’s organisation Bristol Reclaiming Independent Living (BRIL) said last night that the government’s failure would not be forgotten, and that it had put disabled people’s lives at risk.

BRIL said it was “very concerned” about the length of time it had taken the government to produce any guidelines, and that the “indifference shown by central government to the many thousands of people who use direct payments and PAs is having serious consequences”.

The group said it had been left to disabled people’s organisations, self-advocates and grassroots groups to piece together and share guidance.

A BRIL spokesperson said: “Our local authority had managed to get a supply of PPE, and local disabled people’s organisations and direct payment support services are doing what they can to contact people.

“However, we have been told that these supplies may run out soon. We know that the situation in other areas is worse.

“BRIL have been contacted by people who employ their own PAs, and by people with commissioned care, without PPE. People are desperate and scared.

“The first cases of coronavirus in the UK were two months ago. The government have had weeks to consult, plan and inform.

“But their repeated refusal to consult with our organisations, and to put effective plans in place, means not only that we are not thought about – our lives are at risk.”

DHSC also confirmed this week that care minister Helen Whately would answer a letter about the issue from disabled crossbench peer Baroness [Jane] Campbell, which was sent on 13 March, “in due course”.

Baroness Campbell told DNS that the government’s response to the issue had been “inadequate”.

She said: “All our lives are in the risk zone at the moment and we all have to support one another in the community to keep safe.

“There are some remarkable volunteers who are doing their best to help us during this time and we thank them for their thoughtfulness.

“However, disabled people have been disproportionately left out of the central emergency planning processes and disabled people are naturally deeply anxious as a result.

“The drastically slow response from the government to our major concerns over the past few weeks for PPE, or emergency people who can at least get us out of bed and surviving, is alarming.

“It’s time to act now – not in due course.”

Baroness Campbell spoke this week to the leading US disability rights activist Judy Heumann and was told she was “in exactly the same boat and agreed that if you were a PA employer, it’s like you are living off the grid”.

She said: “Nobody knows what we need or exactly how to locate us and we are not locked into the nationally recognised care system.”

Among those disabled people highlighting the lack of information about how to access PPE this week was disabled campaigner Francesca Di Giorgio, who described on social media on Tuesday how she had been unable to leave her bed to visit the bathroom because she had no PPE and one of her PAs had developed symptoms of coronavirus during a three-day shift.

Di Giorgio was told by her local authority that it had no PPE available for disabled people like her who employed their own PAs.

She was also told by the council that if she developed COVID-19 symptoms herself, and did not need to go to hospital, the only option would be to be placed in a care home because it would have supplies of PPE, although the council later told her it would do all it could to keep her out of residential care.

She tweeted: “How is institutionalising me at great cost to the local authority instead of providing PPE to my PAs a reasonable #covid19UK social care contingency plan?”

She added: “All of this was preventable if @DHSCgovuk planned for Direct Payment users.”

She tweeted yesterday that she would now need to self-isolate for seven days, and would need supplies of PPE to keep her other PAs safe during that time.

Anne Pridmore, director of Being the Boss, a user-led organisation which supports disabled people who employ PAs, and who employs PAs herself, said the government’s failure was “shocking” and “sums up what they think about disabled people”.

She said: “Nothing is being done for people on direct payments. They think they cost too much and basically if they get the virus it will be less cost to them.”

Pridmore, who has previously accused the government of “abandoning” employers of PAs, said disabled people across the country in her situation had been left without any guidance from the government on how to survive the coronavirus pandemic, particularly on what they should do to secure supplies of PPE.

She has also heard nothing from her own council about what to do to secure PPE.

Other disabled people have added their concerns about the government’s failure to produce guidance.

Caroline Miles, from the Bristol area, said: “The failure of the government to include any mention of the existence of disabled people who employ PAs using direct payments, or even privately, has meant that all other organisations and businesses have similarly ignored or not been aware of their existence.

“For example, supermarkets have refused to allow carers who are not in agency uniforms or without ID into shops, local authorities themselves are telling disabled people that their carer should get PPE from their agency.

“People are panicking about what sort of ID they could possibly use.

“The agenda has been set for people to be completely left out of any support that might be available.”

LC Groux-Moreau, also from the Bristol area, added: “As a disabled person working for a disability charity, I am worrying constantly about my community.

“Being unable to guide people because I simply cannot secure the answers they need or they are not clear enough is really taking its toll on me.

“I feel helpless, when my position should make me feel empowered and put me in a prime spot to inform other disabled people.”

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

Real

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

2 April 2020

 

Coronavirus: Council ‘tells social workers to stop all their usual work’

A local authority apparently told its social workers to “stop all their usual work” until the coronavirus crisis was over, even before emergency powers to reduce their duties under the Care Act became law.

The controversial Coronavirus Act, which became law last Wednesday (25 March), suspended key parts of the Care Act, with disabled people’s organisations and others warning that it would “run a coach and horses” through disabled people’s right to social care.

But measures in the act that allow councils to “ease” these duties under the Care Act only took legal effect on Tuesday this week (31 March).

Disability News Service (DNS) has seen evidence that suggests that one local authority, Tory-run Warwickshire County Council, told its social workers to halt all their usual work even before the act was passed last week.

Among the changes, the government confirmed this week in guidance, 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.

But the government also confirmed this week in its guidance that councils should only use the new “easements” provided by the Coronavirus Act where it is “essential in order to maintain the highest possible level of services”.

It also says that councils “should comply with the pre-amendment Care Act provisions and related Care and Support Statutory Guidance for as long and as far as possible”.

But evidence seen by DNS suggests that Warwickshire County Council took the decision to halt all the “usual work” being carried out by its social workers before the act even became law.

An advocacy worker paid by the council revealed to a disabled service-user on the day the act received royal assent that she had been told by a social worker that a long-awaited assessment of his need for care and support would be put on hold.

She said this was because “social workers are being asked to stop all their usual work and are being moved to supporting NHS staff at the hospitals until this crisis is over”.

The service-user, a disabled campaigner, told DNS he was “really concerned” about the council’s actions and its decision to “jump the gun” in using the new act.

He fears it could now mean a delay of up to two years in being assessed, while he survives on his existing care and support plan, which he says is not sufficient to meet his needs.

Linda Burnip, co-founder of Disabled People Against Cuts, who lives in Warwickshire, said: “The whole issue is yet another complete shambles.

“Only today have the government published a response to the act from [ministers] Justin Tomlinson and Helen Whately saying that local authorities should do all in their power to meet people’s care needs*.

“Obviously this hasn’t been conveyed to Warwickshire County Council, whose behaviour can only be described as shocking.”

Cllr Les Caborn, the council’s portfolio holder for adult social care and health, told DNS that the council was “under pressure as all local authorities are, as are hospitals, so it makes sense to co-locate teams, doesn’t it?”

The council has refused to confirm what social care measures it has taken; what this will mean for service-users in the county; how the council justified taking these steps; whether it acted before it had the legal powers to do so under the Coronavirus Act; and if it was concerned about the impact of these measures on disabled and older people in the county.

But the council said in a statement: “Due to the current national and local challenges in relation to COVID-19 we are unable to go into the specifics of your query.

“However, we can assure people that Warwickshire County Council continues to work across the county to provide assistance to residents, including those who have care and support needs.

“We are doing this using the national guidance and supporting our partners, especially those in the NHS, to ensure those in most need receive appropriate and timely support.”

Svetlana Kotova, director of campaigns and justice for Inclusion London, said: “We understand these are unprecedented times and councils are under pressure, but this cannot be used as an excuse to deprive disabled people of the essential support they need.

“Let’s be clear, the support people get at the moment is already minimal and you already need to have been assessed as having substantial or critical need to get it.

“The COVID-19 crisis will mean many disabled people will need more support, not less.

“Rather than taking advantage of the new Coronavirus Act to withdraw support and the duties they have under the Care Act, local authorities should collectively, alongside disabled people, call for a massive injection of additional, ring-fenced social care funding from central government, like we have seen in other areas of the economy, that recognises social care as critical infrastructure.

“Locally, local authorities must do all they can to prioritise resources for social care and work with Deaf and disabled people’s organisations to find solutions that would sustain current support packages and ensure necessary additional support is provided for people now needing support as a result of COVID-19.”

Inclusion London has launched a survey to try to build a picture of how the COVID-19 crisis is affecting social care around England.

It plans to use the results to “present a case to ministers based on people’s day-to-day experiences of using social care”, and so influence government policy.

*They said in the document: “We know local authorities and providers will do everything they can to continue to meet all needs including those of disabled people in line with the Care Act.”

**Sources of information and support during the coronavirus pandemic include the following:

Real

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

2 April 2020

 

Coronavirus: Government could face legal action over food delivery fears

The government could face legal action if it does not reconsider its strategy on how to ensure the delivery of vital groceries and food to disabled people, it has been warned by a leading disabled people’s organisation.

Disability Rights UK (DR UK) has written to health and social secretary Matt Hancock to express its “grave concern” about the measures he has taken, and his failure to consult with disabled people’s organisations.

The letter – which was copied to the information commissioner – was sent on Friday (27 March) by DR UK chief executive Kamran Mallick, as concerns about the issue have continued to grow across the country.

Much of this alarm has come from disabled people unable to arrange home deliveries of food and other groceries (see separate story).

Last week, the government announced that 1.5 million disabled people had been categorised as “extremely vulnerable” to the virus and would receive regular deliveries of basic groceries if they do not have their own support network of friends and family.

The list includes those with severe respiratory conditions, many people on immunosuppression therapies, and those with certain cancers.

But supermarkets are now being allowed to use this government database to prioritise home deliveries – although it is not yet clear whether all supermarkets are doing so – and disabled customers are being told a home delivery will only be considered if they are on this restricted list.

This could leave millions of disabled people who cannot safely shop independently, or in many cases cannot even leave their homes, with no way to buy food.

Mallick says in the letter that DR UK has been contacted by many disabled people who are unable to visit supermarkets themselves and are “expressing anxiety about their ability to obtain food and essential supplies from supermarkets”.

He says DR UK believes supermarkets are breaching their duties under the Equality Act to make reasonable adjustments for their disabled customers, with inaccessible websites and telephone helplines that are busy for hours on end.

Mallick says DR UK is particularly concerned about the government’s plans to share its database of the 1.5 million people in England it considers most “vulnerable” in the current crisis with Sainsbury’s and other supermarkets.

He says this raises serious data protection concerns, while the government’s “medical model” definition of who needs help will overlook many disabled people who will need support to obtain food and other groceries during the crisis.

He warns Hancock that DR UK has taken legal advice from solicitors Fry Law on the data protection issue and is “ready if necessary, to apply to the Courts to prevent you from proceeding down this route”.

Mallick says the government is in effect assisting supermarkets in “evading their responsibilities under the Equality Act to make reasonable adjustments”.

He also raises concerns that the government has not yet confirmed that those delivering supplies to people categorised as extremely vulnerable will have had their backgrounds checked through the Disclosure and Barring Service.

DHSC had not responded to a request to comment on the letter by noon today (Thursday).

The British Retail Consortium refused to comment on the Equality Act concerns about supermarkets, but a spokesperson issued the following statement: “Retailers are working round the clock to expand capacity for online deliveries, but as this accounts for around eight per cent of total food sales, physical stores will remain the most important way of getting food.

“Everyone must come together in the current crisis and we encourage everyone to consider, if they can, picking up food for vulnerable, disabled, or self-isolating neighbours.

“Meanwhile, government and retailers are working hard to identify and support vulnerable people who are unable to shop.”

A spokesperson for the Information Commissioner’s Office said: “Data protection law enables organisations to share personal data when it is appropriate to do so.

“In a national emergency such as the COVID-19 pandemic, sharing information between organisations can make a real difference to protecting vulnerable individuals.

“Where it’s necessary, public authorities are able to share relevant information to help provide essential support services, as long as they share only the minimum amount of information required and ensure that it is not retained for longer than needed.

“Data sharing can be done in accordance with the law, including putting the appropriate safeguards in place so people’s information is handled responsibly.”

But Chris Fry, of Fry Law, who has been advising DR UK, told Disability News Service there was still a need for reassurance that there were safeguards in place, and for the government to explain the lawful basis for sharing the information with supermarkets.

He pointed out that many supermarkets have their own banking, finance and insurance arms, so it was vital to know how disabled people’s personal data would be used and what safeguards were in place.

He said that just using the existence of the crisis as “justification” for sharing the data “would not cut it”.

*Sources of information and support during the coronavirus pandemic include the following:

Real

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

2 April 2020

 

Coronavirus: Blind Baptist minister fears disabled people could be left to starve

A leading disabled Baptist minister fears that many disabled people could be left to starve to death because of the failure of the government and supermarkets to ensure they have a way to buy food during the coronavirus crisis.

The Rev Glen Graham has launched a petition with his wife Rowan to highlight their concerns and persuade the government and retailers to take urgent action.

Graham is blind, while his wife has only limited sight and several long-term health conditions, and they warn in their petition that many disabled people have been forgotten in the government’s emergency COVID-19 measures.

Last week, the government announced that 1.5 million disabled people had been categorised as “extremely vulnerable” to the virus and will receive regular deliveries of basic groceries if they do not have their own support network of friends and family.

Depending on demand, hundreds of thousands of boxes could be delivered each week, the government said this week.

The list includes those with severe respiratory conditions, many people on immunosuppression therapies, and those with certain cancers.

But supermarkets are being allowed to use the government database to prioritise their own home deliveries – although it is not yet clear how many supermarkets are doing so – and many disabled customers are being told they will only be considered for a delivery if they are on this restricted list.

This could leave millions of disabled people who cannot safely shop independently, or in many cases cannot even leave their homes, and who therefore have been left without a way to buy food.

Increasing concerns have been raised by the Grahams and other disabled people who say it is now impossible for them to order food online, because all the delivery slots are permanently booked.

Graham is minister at a Devon Baptist church and chair of the Churches for All network of disability-related Christian organisations, but is not speaking on their behalf.

He told Disability News Service: “I fear that people will be forgotten about. People could go hungry. People could starve to death.

“If I was a government person, I wouldn’t want that on my conscience.”

Many of those responding to the petition have raised fears for their own safety.

One said: “I am registered blind and I am not classed as vulnerable. There are no online delivery slots for weeks and I need help to do my shopping.

“I can’t go to the supermarket as I have no transportation and couldn’t carry bags on the bus even if one was running at regular intervals. I am stuck without food for myself and my dog and cats.”

Another said: “Can’t get any shopping online can’t go out it’s like we have been left to starve at home forgotten about.”

A third petition supporter said: “I am a totally blind mum of three children, working full time, but I cannot book any supermarket slot.

“I believe when I go out and try to go shopping that exposes me to the risk of falling ill yet somehow I have to feed our family.”

Graham, who advises the Baptist Church on disability issues, said: “We could cope better if we could make sure of the [delivery] service that has helped us all along.

“Yet again our choices are being limited. Most of the public can choose when to go shopping.

“At the moment, all we can choose to do is hope for the benevolence of someone else if they are free and able. That’s a very risky business.

“It does demoralise you, because the independence you have is locked down with you in the lockdown.”

The Grahams live in the Exeter area and managed just before the crisis worsened last month to book a delivery of groceries, which was delivered on Monday this week, but they have been unable to find any other delivery slots.

They believe they will now have to continue to rely on the kindness of friends who have been delivering fresh food to them.

Rowan Graham said: “We have friends who are leaving perishables for us and also helping out the elderly people in their own villages as well, but how long will they be able to keep that going?”

She said that she and her husband had gone overnight from being independent to being “extremely vulnerable” because of the loss of their ability to book food deliveries online.

She said: “The government has made us extremely vulnerable. I am trying not to be concerned about it but 95 per cent of our shopping has always been done online and the other five per cent by our cleaner.

“People will starve if they are not already doing so. They will starve to death.”

She said some of the stories from disabled people who have already signed their petition were “heart-breaking”.

She called on the government and retailers to provide more delivery slots to disabled people not in the “extremely vulnerable” group.

Her husband said this would “solve a whole load of problems” and would ensure both “safety” and “empowerment” for disabled people.

He said: “We are hearing all this stuff about ‘we are in it together’, but unless there is a widening of that group, we are not in it together. It simply isn’t true.”

*Sources of information and support during the coronavirus pandemic include the following:

Real

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

2 April 2020

 

Coronavirus: ‘Unprepared’ DWP refuses to allow many staff to work from home

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has been refusing to allow many staff to work from home during the coronavirus crisis, even if they live with people with long-term health conditions, or must travel to work on public transport.

One source in the department, David*, has told Disability News Service (DNS) that he and other staff in the universal credit (UC) service centre in Bristol where he works were refused permission to work from home.

Instead, they were forced to continue to come into the office to work, often travelling on buses and trains.

David said: “Some of my colleagues are worried about this as they live with elderly relatives or are the carers of elderly relatives with health conditions who can’t afford to get the virus. Many of us use buses and trains to get to work.”

Other staff who were self-isolating at home because they had long-term health conditions were also originally refused permission to work from home.

When managers were unable to explain their refusal to allow staff to work from home, they were reminded that the government was urging other employers to allow their staff to do so.

David said: “The government can’t tell businesses to make their employees work from home if they’re not willing to do it for their own office staff.”

He said it had only been in the last few days that managers have started to order laptops for staff with long-term health conditions who may need to self-isolate for 12 weeks, so they can work from home.

But he said: “We’re worried at how long it’s going to take to clear all the piled-up work.

“There’s so much of it that even thinking of the amount is nerve-wracking.

“We’re concentrating on doing what we can and hoping things will stop looking so dire once all staff are given the resources to work, assuming we ever see these laptops.”

But he warned that UC could “fail dramatically” because of the increasing number of DWP staff who will have to stay at home due to self-isolating or looking after children.

Another source within the department, Tom*, said DWP had been slow to react to the COVID-19 crisis because of chronic under-investment in its IT systems.

He said the department had made no attempt over the last few years to prepare a contingency plan for such a catastrophic event affecting the whole of the UK.

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to a surge in new UC claims, as hundreds of thousands of workers have lost their jobs or have seen their earnings plummet.

Last week, DWP tweeted that it was “redeploying” 10,000 staff to the “frontline” so that new benefit claimants could receive their payments on time.

Yesterday (Wednesday), work and pensions secretary Therese Coffey said DWP had registered nearly one million new claims for UC in the previous fortnight.

Meanwhile, DWP has seen a significant proportion of its own workforce report in sick with COVID-19 symptoms or be forced to self-isolate at home because of long-term health conditions.

Tom said last week that DWP’s attempts to deal with the crisis had been hampered by a shortage of remote connections that staff could use to log into its secure system when working from home.

He said: “We are not prepared. The money has not been invested.

“Everything is being done on the fly. They have never had anything in place for a disaster scenario.”

He said this week that DWP had now managed to increase the number of remote connections, although there were probably still not enough to allow more than a small proportion of staff to work from home.

He confirmed David’s report that the department had now started to order laptops, which will allow more staff to work from home.

A third source, who works at a large DWP office in the north-west of England, also confirmed that the department had not yet been able to provide enough secure laptops to allow more than a small proportion of staff to work from home.

She said there was only about one secure laptop for every 25 staff, and most of them were used by managers, although others have been ordered.

She said: “People I know who are having to go into work (a lot are self-isolating due to underlying conditions or other people in their household who might be infected) are worried that they are at risk of contracting COVID-19.

“Consequently, they are annoyed that more secure laptops have not been provided yet, so they can work from home and avoid the risk of going into the office.”

DNS approached the PCS union for a response to the concerns, but it had not responded by noon today (Thursday).

A DWP spokesperson said in a statement: “We are immensely proud of our dedicated staff and their safety remains a primary concern.

“We continue to follow the latest guidance.”

DWP also said that most of its operations for processing benefit claims were office-based and that it was currently experiencing unprecedented demand, so it was essential that some of its staff continued to work on site in jobcentres and other offices.

DWP also said it was working to bring in additional staff from across the department and the wider Civil Service to help deal with unprecedented claim volumes.

*Not their real names

**Sources of information and support during the coronavirus pandemic include the following:

Real

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

2 April 2020

 

Coronavirus: Disabled workers raise concerns over Access to Work

Disabled people are raising concerns about the way the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) is running its Access to Work disability employment scheme during the coronavirus crisis.

The scheme – which funds support such as personal assistants, travel costs and aids and equipment – helps tens of thousands of disabled people find and keep employment.

But a series of concerns have been raised by disabled people about how the scheme has been functioning since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Among those concerns is that complaints and queries from people who receive Access to Work (AtW) support are not being answered by DWP, potentially putting their jobs at risk.

One of those raising concerns is artist-activist Jess Thom, co-founder of Touretteshero, who has received vital AtW support for more than a decade which enables her to employ a full-time support worker and cover the cost of other work-related access requirements.

Her AtW is due to be renewed this month but she has been trying unsuccessfully for more than three weeks to secure information from DWP on whether she will be able to continue to pay those expenses or her support worker.

Thom told Disability News Service (DNS): “We need clear guidance from AtW about how they will deliver existing support, deal with renewals, and process new claims.

“Ideally AtW would agree to roll forward existing AtW provision in order to free up capacity to focus on any new requests or changed circumstances.”

Among her other concerns, she has called for clarity on what will happen to support workers if the disabled person being funded by AtW to employ them receives payments while on temporary leave through the government’s Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme.

Thom, who plans to write to her MP Harriet Harman about the issue, said: “I’m very familiar and confident with AtW and used to asserting myself and my employer is supportive and inclusive and has a good understanding of AtW.

“I’m really worried that if they don’t renew my support on time the DWP will effectively be preventing me from doing my job.

“This is taking up a lot of my time and energy that could be going to other areas of work at the moment.

“I’m worried that if this is causing me this much stress and anxiety then what is the impact on younger disabled people or those who’ve recently started new jobs.”

Other unanswered questions about AtW include whether the scheme will pay for support workers who are self-isolating but can still support their disabled employer by working remotely, an issue raised by Roger Lewis, a member of the steering group of Disabled People Against Cuts, who himself has a support worker funded by AtW.

Among other campaigners to have raised concerns is Nicky Evans, from the StopChanges2AtW campaign.

She has written to Justin Tomlinson, the minister for disabled people, to warn that AtW recipients were having to send their forms through the post to their own managers at their home addresses to be approved and signed, and then forwarded on by post again to AtW.

She told him: “Please are you able to confirm if there are any arrangements being made by AtW to agree electronic signatures or another way of approving claim forms during the current Coronavirus lockdown.

“No one seems to be getting any response from AtW either via phone or email at present.”

In response to a series of concerns raised by DNS about AtW, a DWP spokesperson said: “We remain committed to supporting those with disabilities and health conditions at this time.

“That includes prioritising Access to Work applications from customers in critical worker groups and continuing to support people currently in receipt of an award.”

*Sources of information and support during the coronavirus pandemic include the following:

Inclusion London

Real

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

2 April 2020

 

Coronavirus round-up: European concerns, a Commonwealth statement and ROFA

The European Disability Forum (EDF) has raised concerns that segregated residential institutions for disabled people across Europe are becoming “hotbeds of infection and abuse” during the coronavirus pandemic.

EDF said the institutions face a lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) for disabled people and staff; a lack of care due to staff shortages; and forced medication and restraint measures taken “under the pretence of preventive measures”.

EDF has collected examples from Germany, Poland, Spain, Italy and Greece, including 70 people becoming infected in an institution for people with learning difficulties in Italy because of a lack of PPE, and mental health units locking service-users in their rooms in Greece.

The Commonwealth Disabled People’s Forum has issued a statement and recommendations for how governments can ensure disabled people throughout the Commonwealth “are not disadvantaged and have their needs met” during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The forum, which represents disabled people’s organisations in 46 countries of the Commonwealth, says in its statement: “History shows us that in the past, disabled people have been inhumanely treated at times of political, social and humanitarian/medical crisis and this must not be repeated.”

The national conference of the Reclaiming Our Futures Alliance (ROFA), which had been due to take place in Manchester on 22 April, and was called off because of the COVID-19 crisis, will now take place online instead.

The conference – Post election: what now? Planning the future for our movement and campaigns – will take place on 22 and 23 April and aims to “plan campaigns, set priorities and hear from campaigns and disabled people’s organisations from around England”.

Inclusion London has launched a survey to try to build a picture of how the COVID-19 crisis is affecting social care around England.

It plans to use the results to “present a case to ministers based on people’s day-to-day experiences of using social care”, and so influence government policy.

Members of the Disability Benefits Consortium have written to work and pensions secretary Therese Coffey, to call for urgent changes to the benefits system to protect disabled and seriously unwell people during the COVID-19 crisis.

Among the measures they want to see are interim payments being made from the first day of a claim for personal independence payment or universal credit (UC), and the increase announced in the UC standard allowance to be matched with similar rises for “legacy” benefits such as employment and support allowance.

The government has announced a £5 million grant for mental health charities, to be administered by Mind, to fund services for people struggling with their mental health during the COVID-19 crisis. 

It said Mind would use its links with other charities, including grassroots, user-led organisations, to reach “vulnerable groups who are at particular risk during this period”.

The House of Commons women and equalities committee has launched an inquiry into whether some groups in society are being disproportionately affected by COVID-19, and by the government’s response to the pandemic.

Evidence can be submitted to the committee until 30 April.

Equality and discrimination experts at Fry Law have published template letters for disabled people to use if they are facing discrimination during the coronavirus crisis, which can be downloaded free.

Fry Law is also organising twice-weekly online sessions that will offer disability rights advice on issues arising from the COVID-19 crisis, featuring advice from Fry Law’s Chris Fry and equality and human rights barrister Cathy Casserley, from Cloisters Chambers.

The online sessions will take place between 6pm and 7pm every Tuesday and Friday.

*Sources of information and support during the coronavirus pandemic include the following:

Inclusion London

Real

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

2 April 2020

 

Government blames coronavirus crisis for closure of elected office fund

The government has blamed the coronavirus crisis for its decision to close a temporary fund that was set up to support disabled people with the extra costs of running for political office.

One disabled politician has described the permanent closure of the EnAble fund as a “kick in the teeth”, and accused the government of “locking disabled people out of politics”.

Only last month, the government announced a U-turn over the fund’s closure date and said it was being extended until the end of July to cover disabled people seeking election in May as police and crime commissioners (PCCs) and local councillors in England.

But after the elections were postponed until 2021, the Government Equalities Office (GEO) has now decided to scrap the fund altogether, and has only said it is “considering options” for future support for disabled candidates through the government’s national disability strategy, which is due to be published later this year.

Martha Foulds, who was due to stand for Sheffield City Council in May’s elections, was told of the closure decision last week by Disability Rights UK (DR UK), which had been administering the fund on behalf of the Local Government Association.

DR UK told her it had been passed the following message from GEO for applicants to the fund: “As the elections have now been postponed to 2021 we unfortunately are not able to continue with your application as the Fund will be closed down before they take place.

“The Government is considering options for future support for disabled candidates ahead of next year’s elections in connection with the National Strategy for Disabled People, which is due to be published later this year.”

A GEO spokesperson confirmed to Disability News Service (DNS) yesterday (Wednesday) that the fund had now closed.

Foulds told DNS that the fund would have allowed her to fight the election “on an equal footing” with her non-disabled political opponents.

She is visually-impaired and to fully participate in a campaign – knocking on doors and talking to people throughout her community – she needs support from a personal assistant.

Foulds found her way into politics through disability rights activism, fighting for accessible transport in South Yorkshire and campaigning against universal credit.

She said: “If the government forces me to fund support from personal assistants myself, they are breaching the provisions on participation in political public life outlined in article 29 of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

“Disabled people are already woefully underrepresented in politics and closing the fund for good will put more people off politics at a time we need our voices to be even louder.”

She added: “It’s a real kick in the teeth and something that really angers me.

“The government are locking disabled people out of politics and it seems like they simply don’t care.”

DR UK said it was “not satisfied” with the government’s response.

A DR UK spokesperson said: “We have been informed by the Government Equalities Office that as they are only able to extend a contract by six months, they cannot extend the EnAble Fund as far as May 2021.

“We have challenged the decision to cancel the contract and asked them to review their rules about extensions.

“We have asked them to pledge that they will put something in place for next year’s local elections.

“However, they have only been able to advise us that the government is considering options for future support for disabled candidates ahead of next year’s elections, in connection with the National Strategy for Disabled People.

“We are not satisfied with the response from the Government Equalities Office – disabled people deserve more than ‘a consideration of options’.”

She added: “Disabled people seeking elected office need a permanent fund to assist in removing the barriers they face.

“We have already raised this issue with the Disability Unit, which is responsible for the strategy, and with the minister for disabled people.”

David Buxton, a Deaf Liberal Democrat candidate in the general election, said he was “bitterly disappointed” at the decision to close the fund, and the government’s failure to consult on the move with Deaf and disabled people.

Buxton had to raise thousands of pounds to cover the cost of sign language interpreters during his campaign, which he is hoping will be repaid from unspent EnAble funds.

He stressed the importance of a permanent fund to support disabled politicians with the disability-related costs of seeking elected office.

He said: “We should be proud, treated as equals with all other candidates, yet this is totally side-lining and dismissing us from the political world in which we can play a vital part which will benefit everyone.”

He called on ministers to invite him and other disabled politicians to a “frank, open and honest discussion” in a bid to find “positive solutions for a better future”.

A GEO spokesperson told DNS: “We have always been clear that the EnAble Fund was an interim measure.

“Financial support for candidates is a matter for political parties and we expect them to take action, but the government is also considering options for how it might support disabled candidates in the future.”

She said the fund was set up as an interim fund to cover scheduled elections between December 2018 and March 2020 and was then extended to cover the local council and PCC elections in May, which have now been postponed.

She added: “The government is considering options for how it might support candidates in the future in connection with the National Strategy for Disabled People.”

DNS revealed in February that successive chairs of the Conservative party had snubbed a request from their own equalities minister, who had asked them last year to explain how they intended to support more disabled people to become MPs and councillors.

Penny Mordaunt had told her party – as well as Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens – that she believed “the provision of support for disabled candidates should ultimately be the responsibility of political parties”.

But she never received a detailed reply from any of the parties and her successors in the post – including Truss – failed to follow up her letter.

Mordaunt’s letter was written because the government has refused to set up a new permanent, long-term fund.

It scrapped the short-lived Access to Elected Office Fund (AEOF) in 2015 and eventually replaced it three years later with the temporary EnAble fund in response to a legal action taken by a trio of disabled politicians – including Buxton – who warned that the failure to reopen AEOF breached the Equality Act.

AEOF had only been set up in 2012 following Liberal Democrat pressure on their Tory coalition partners; it funded disability-related costs for candidates in parliamentary and other elections, before it was closed by the Conservatives after the 2015 general election.

2 April 2020

News provided by John Pring at www.disabilitynewsservice.com