Coronavirus: Shielders ‘confused, scared and distrustful’ as 1 August approaches

Disabled people who have been shielding from coronavirus since March are expressing significant doubts about government advice that says that – from Saturday (1 August) – they will no longer need to do so.

The government announced on 22 June that the 2.2 million people in England who had been placed in the “clinically extremely vulnerable” group would no longer need to shield from 1 August, although they should continue to follow strict social distancing measures.

It also said that its shielding support package – including free deliveries of food boxes, and medicine deliveries by community pharmacies – would end tomorrow (31 July).

And those who were shielding but could not work from home were told they could return to their jobs from Saturday (1 August) if their workplace was “COVID secure”.

In the wake of the 22 June announcement, disabled people and disabled people’s organisations told Disability News Service (DNS) that the decision to further ease measures that had been protecting hundreds of thousands of people with impairments and long-term health conditions had left them “stunned and anxious”.

Now, with 1 August just two days away, DNS has asked the same disabled people and DPOs whether their views have changed since late June.

But with the first suggestions that cases of COVID-19 are slowly beginning to creep upwards again across the country, they have expressed significant concerns about the end of the support package and the suggestion that they and others can now stop shielding.

Fazilet Hadi, head of policy for Disability Rights UK (DR UK), said last month that it was not right that those who had been shielding should be asked to “choose between their life and their livelihood” from 1 August.

This week, she said DR UK remained “extremely concerned” about the government’s “blanket approach to lifting shielding”.

This means, she said, that doctors cannot recommend that shielding continues in particular cases; there are no exceptions for those shielders who would have to use public transport if they returned to work; and there is no guidance on “what happens if the workplace cannot be made safe and working from home is not an option.

She also pointed out that there are no special provisions for those living in areas where the reproduction rate of the virus is high.

She said: “It is also unclear what support and protection will be available to people who need to shield in the situation of future local lockdowns.”

She added: “The virus transmission rate has gone down and many of us have calculated that the risk of being out and about is worth taking.

“However, for people who are clinically susceptible, this calculation may well be different, and resuming ‘normal life’ might still be a risk they don’t feel they can take.”

The grassroots disabled people’s organisation Bristol Reclaiming Independent Living (BRIL) warned last month that it was “very concerned” that the government’s plans had been introduced “against scientific advice and without any consultation with disabled and chronically ill people”.

This week, although welcoming the potential positive impact on many people’s mental health of being able to leave their homes for the first time in months, BRIL still has serious concerns.

It believes the guidance on being allowed to mix with small groups outdoors “makes no sense, as we have no control over who else those people have met”, while disabled people who receive support in their own homes are now at greater risk because these care workers will have been mixing with a wider group of people than earlier in the crisis.

It is also concerned about shielders being forced to return to work and potentially being penalised by employers if they refuse to do so.

BRIL said it was concerned that the end of the government’s food box scheme could leave some disabled people without food, “as supermarkets have still not sorted out delivery slot shortages, so people will be genuinely scared that going to shops at the same time as everybody else as all the other restrictions are lifted, and with people not following guidance to wear masks, is just too risky”.

A BRIL spokesperson said: “People of colour and disabled people have been dying and have been impacted harder than other people.

“The government know this, but have done next to nothing about it.

“The message that many shielders, disabled people and people with chronic/long-term physical and mental health conditions get from the government is that they have been forgotten. A lot of people who are shielding are confused and scared.

“When the government are forced into remembering us, we are seen as a problem, a burden. There has been no attempt to involve disabled people in policy decisions.

“As a result, most of the government’s information and guidance about COVID has been late, inaccessible, inaccurate and contradictory.

“BRIL can’t think of anyone who is shielding or a deaf, disabled or chronically ill person that trusts this government.”

Vici Richardson, community care and personalisation advisor for the disabled people’s organisation Disability North, said she was not as positive or confident as she was a month ago, after hearing from disabled people in recent days.

She said: “I think there are a lot of people who remain distrustful of general advice and there is still an awful lot of anxiety, even from disabled people who are not on the shielding list.”

Some of those who have been shielding are about to return to work and are “very apprehensive”, she said.

Others feel there needs to be a return to some degree of normality and that “if we can have a bit of normality now it may make the winter easier if we have to go back into shielding”.

She said: “I have heard from a lot of parents, though, who are shielding their children/young people and they are extremely concerned about another spike come autumn/winter.

“Many are now absolutely exhausted from taking on education, care and the therapies and are worried about how they would manage a second time.”

She added: “I don’t think I have spoken to anyone over the last few months who has been advised to shield who is feeling confident about resuming a life on the outside.

“For me personally, we are going to do what we can to ensure there is a little bit of freedom and normality for our [disabled] son whilst keeping the risk down and ensuring that he is strong enough emotionally to get through the winter period if we have to fully shield again, which we have been told is very likely.”

Kathy Bole, co-chair of Disability Labour, said her thoughts on shielding had not changed in the last five weeks.

She said: “I and indeed most of the disabled people I know are still planning on shielding.”

Like DR UK, she fears what will happen after 1 August to shielders who are told to return to their offices by their bosses.

She said: “People may not be able to protect themselves.

“If a boss wants someone to return, it isn’t clear whether the employee has any route to refuse to return on the basis of health risk.

“I am not sure if there is any negotiation possible. I think that will be very tricky and those in low-paid jobs will not have the option.

“This is why people should belong to a union.”

Bole added: “I know we haven’t seen a second spike yet, but I believe that it will come.

“My feeling is people will become complacent and more people will get sick and more will die.

“Many disabled people I have spoken to are planning on staying in slightly modified shielding, only going out if absolutely necessary.

“They will continue to shield until a vaccine is found.”

She fears that this new environment, with supermarkets no longer having to reserve shopping slots for those in vulnerable situations, will mean disabled people “will once again be left behind”.

Her fellow co-chair at Disability Labour, Fran Springfield, said: “I’m not stopping shielding and the majority of the disabled people I know are not either.

“With the likelihood of a second wave – going out does not feel safe.

“My partner, who is less at risk than I am, is reporting back that many shops in London are not endorsing mask wearing and there seems to be a general reluctance to challenge those who don’t social distance either. So I’m going nowhere!”

Last month, disabled campaigner Fleur Perry said she would look at local and national data before making any decisions on whether to stop shielding on 1 August, and would “probably err on the side of caution”.

Today (Thursday), she said: “I’ve been unable to locate the data and rationale behind ending shielding.

“Yes, the number of cases has dropped in the past few months, but we’re still in a situation where hundreds of people are dying every week.

“A second wave this summer has not been ruled out.

“Do I feel safe to go where I need to go and do what I need to do? No, and it may be a while yet for me.”

Disabled campaigner and retired Paralympian Chris Channon, who himself is on the “clinically extremely vulnerable” list, said his views had not changed and he was still “petrified”.

He said: “The virus is still active, with the World Health Organization (WHO) saying that the number of people infected globally is increasing by a million every four days.

“The virus is not defeated, and neither does it obey government ministers.

“I will never feel safe until I’m covered by an effective vaccine.”

Meanwhile, new figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) show that the proportion of those in the clinically extremely vulnerable group who had strictly followed the shielding instructions drifted downwards in the week after the government’s 22 June announcement.

For data collected between 9 and 18 June, 83 per cent of them received no visitors except for support with personal care. But that fell to 77 per cent, for data collected between 24 and 30 June.

Over the same time period, the proportion completely following shielding guidance fell from 63 per cent to 58 per cent.

Tim Gibbs, from the ONS public services analysis team, said: “Overall we have seen that the percentage of the shielding population who have been following government guidance has fallen as government restrictions eased for the general population at the end of June.”

The figures also showed that younger disabled people have been more likely to experience a worsening of their mental health since they were advised to shield.

For those aged 75 and over, 24 per cent said their mental health had become slightly or much worse, while for those aged 30 to 39, 47 per cent said their mental health had worsened.

*For sources of information and support during the coronavirus crisis, visit the DNS advice and information page

30 July 2020


Coronavirus: Government set to scrap measures that allow shielding MPs to stay safe

MPs who have been shielding from coronavirus are set to lose their right to play a significant part in parliamentary proceedings, unless they attend parliament in person.

MPs are not due to return to the House of Commons until 1 September, but rules that previously allowed those at particularly high risk from coronavirus to play a key part in parliamentary proceedings from the safety of their own homes have only been extended to 2 September.

Although they are no longer able to take part in debates, shielding MPs can currently ask oral questions of ministers and respond to ministerial written statements online, and arrange for a colleague to vote on their behalf.

But now those adjustments are set to be removed the day after MPs return, apart from the proxy vote facility, which has been extended until 28 September, and the right to participate virtually in select committees, which has been extended by the Commons speaker to 30 October.

This is because a government motion – passed by MPs without a vote earlier this month – to extend the “virtual participation” arrangements expires on 2 September.

Asked if its actions risked forcing shielding MPs to make a physical return to parliament before it was safe for them to do so, a government spokesperson said: “In July we extended arrangements to allow for remote participation in scrutiny proceedings until 2 September.

“The position will be assessed when the House of Commons returns from the summer recess.”

The government announced on 22 June that the 2.2 million people in England who had been placed in the “clinically extremely vulnerable” group – including several MPs – would no longer need to shield from Saturday (1 August).

The government’s shielding support package – including free deliveries of food boxes, and medicine deliveries by community pharmacies – will stop tomorrow (see separate story).

And those who were previously shielding and cannot work from home were told they could return to work from Saturday if that workplace is “COVID secure”.

All of this now appears set to apply to shielding MPs after their summer recess.

But disabled people who have been shielding from coronavirus since March have this week been expressing concerns about their safety, despite the government telling them they no longer need to shield from Saturday.

They have told Disability News Service (DNS) that they are confused, scared and distrustful of the government’s advice as the 1 August date approaches.

One of the MPs who has been shielding since March is Labour’s shadow minister for disabled people, Vicky Foxcroft, who is on immunosuppressant medication that places her among those most at serious risk from COVID-19.

She was forced to take legal advice earlier this summer after the government ordered an end to the “hybrid” system that had allowed some MPs to attend parliament and others to take part in debates and vote online from home.

She was advised that parliament was exempt from the Equality Act and so a legal action was likely to fail, while she also concluded that she was unlikely to win much public support as an MP taking a legal case for discrimination.

She told DNS this week that she decided her time was better spent fighting for other shielders, and so has focused instead on probing ministers about their rights.

In the last three weeks, Foxcroft has been following the updated government guidance on shielding, and has gradually taken walks and met small groups of people outdoors.

But she said: “The first time I went for a walk I was dizzy. I was panicking. I was quite surprised that my body did that to me without my permission.

“But that is obviously how lots of people will feel when you have just been inside for ages and you go outside into the world and people are not social distancing in the way that I would have liked.

“It has been quite a challenge, but now I can do it without the same level of anxiety I had.”

The government’s apparent decision to take protection away from shielding MPs means that, although she is still concerned about the significant risks to her health, she will likely have to return to parliament in person after recess.

But the Lewisham and Deptford MP will not be taking public transport, which she believes is too much of a risk, and instead plans to walk the nearly six miles to Westminster every morning from her home, and return at night via a taxi.

She has never claimed on her MPs’ expenses for taxis, even after a late-night Commons sitting, and so plans to pay for those taxi fares from her salary.

Foxcroft said she was frustrated that the government looks set to force her to return to parliament before it is safe, but had felt the same frustration in May when she and other shielding MPs were prevented from contributing to debates even though the necessary system for them to do so had been put in place by the Commons authorities.

She remembers “the frustration of having everything cut from you at a time when you have a lot to be raising – I’m shadow minister for disabled people and disabled people have been an afterthought right the way through this crisis”.

She added: “In September, why offer me a proxy vote and not the ability to contribute [in other ways]? It’s what MPs do. I just don’t understand the rationale behind that.”

She is not yet sure how COVID-secure parliament will be, particularly those parts outside the main Commons chamber.

For that reason – assuming the government does not extend the facilities for shielding MPs to contribute from home – she will spend her time either in the chamber or in her parliamentary office, or voting.

Her staff will continue to work from home or from her constituency office, although with a maximum of three social distancing staff in the office at any one time.

She will also have no face-to-face meetings.

She said: “I don’t know what parliament will look like inside, and also I don’t know how long this is going to carry on for and whether I can find a way to do things and keep myself safe.

“That’s another thought in my head and I’m sure it’s a thought in a lot of people’s heads.”

She is highly critical of the government’s failure to protect others who have been shielding and will have to return to their own workplaces from 1 August.

Foxcroft pointed to the lack of government guidance to explain what should happen if workplaces are not COVID-secure.

She said: “The government are just saying that employers will do the right thing, but you can’t always guarantee that.

“What protections will government have for those people if their workplace is not safe and secure? There will be a lot of places that will not be able to be safe and secure.”

She has also been asking the government to publish a list showing the levels of risk that people with different health conditions face from COVID-19.

She said: “People understanding what their own risk is is quite important.”

Other than knowing she was one of the group seen as being “clinically extremely vulnerable” to the virus, she has no idea what level of risk she faces.

Foxcroft was also dismissive of the role played by her opposite number, the minister for disabled people, Justin Tomlinson, during the pandemic.

Her criticism came after DNS research showed how the UK government had breached the rights of disabled people in at least 17 different ways during the coronavirus pandemic, while DNS also reported how the website of the government’s new Disability Unit failed to make a single announcement in more than three months, while more than 20,000 disabled people were dying from COVID-19.

Foxcroft said: “I don’t think he has been useful to disabled people during the pandemic.

“I can’t actually think of anything that he’s done. Where has that strong voice been for disabled people?”

*For sources of information and support during the coronavirus crisis, visit the DNS advice and information page

30 July 2020


Coronavirus: ONS defends delay to updated disability death stats

Further research showing how many disabled people have died during the later stages of the coronavirus pandemic is not likely to be published until October, according to a government department.

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) finally produced figures on 19 June that showed how many disabled people had died of COVID-19 during the early stages of the pandemic.

The figures were published three-and-a-half months after the UK’s first recorded death from the virus.

They showed that about 22,500 disabled people of all ages died due to COVID-19 between 2 March and 15 May, compared with about 15,500 non-disabled people.

They also showed that younger disabled males (those “limited a lot” in daily life and aged between nine and 64) were 6.5 times more likely to have died due to COVID-19 than non-disabled males, while disabled females between nine and 64 were 11.3 times more likely to have died through COVID-19 than non-disabled females in the same age group.

The “shocking” figures led to calls from disabled people’s organisations for an inquiry into the reasons behind the disproportionately high number of deaths of disabled people during the pandemic.

But they only showed deaths up to 15 May, and there are still no figures showing how many disabled people died in the next six weeks.

Such research could show if government measures introduced during May, including its decision to start easing the lockdown, have had a disproportionate impact on disabled people.

Asked by Disability News Service (DNS) this week when updated figures would be published, an ONS spokesperson said: “We are working towards publishing more in-depth analysis of COVID-19 deaths for disabled people and appreciate the importance of this information.

“We will be updating the analysis published in June but also examining wider socio-economic factors which may contribute to increased risk because we want to really add insight. This work is complex and we will publish as soon as we can.”

ONS aims to publish the report in October.

Professor Peter Beresford, co-chair of the service-user and disabled people’s network Shaping Our Lives, said last week’s publication by DNS of new research highlighting the many “appalling breaches” of disabled people’s rights by the government during the pandemic was “rightly being seen as requiring independent inquiry”.

He said it was crucial that ONS followed up the first set of figures, and hoped it would keep to its pledge to do so, but he questioned why it would take until October to produce the new figures.

Linda Burnip, co-founder of Disabled People Against Cuts, welcomed the confirmation from ONS that it would update the figures, and said she was “very pleased” that it appeared to recognise their importance.

Ian Jones, from WOWcampaign, said: “July has not been a good month.

“The Equality and Human Rights Commission failed to announce an inquiry into the deaths of disabled people related to welfare reforms.

“The government’s own Disability Unit has failed to deliver any measures to help disabled people deal with the COVID-19 outbreak.

“Now the ONS is saying that some time in the future they will produce detailed analysis of the impact of COVID-19 on disabled people, examining wider socioeconomic factors.

“Whilst [we welcome] this development, the government has always said this kind of analysis is impossible to do accurately when we called for a cumulative impact assessment of the impact on disabled people of welfare reform.

“If it isn’t measured, it never happened.”

He added: “If anybody is under the impression that disabled people matter as much to society as anybody else, I would like to hear their explanation of July’s events.”

*For sources of information and support during the coronavirus crisis, visit the DNS advice and information page

30 July 2020


Coronavirus: Government was ‘reckless and negligent’ in approach to social care, say MPs

The government has been accused by MPs of a “reckless and negligent” approach to the social care sector during the COVID-19 pandemic.

A report by the Commons public accounts committee contrasts the government’s early actions to protect the NHS with its delayed, inconsistent and at times negligent actions on social care.

The committee’s report concludes: “This pandemic has shown the tragic impact of delaying much needed social care reform, and instead treating the sector as the NHS’s poor relation.”

A key criticism comes over the decision to discharge 25,000 NHS patients into care homes without first testing them for coronavirus – in the period up to 15 April – which the committee says was an “appalling error”.

As a result, between 9 March and 17 May, around 5,900 care homes, more than a third of care homes across England, reported at least one outbreak of coronavirus.

The report says: “When we challenged the Department and the NHS on such a reckless and negligent policy, the Department told us that when the NHS issued its guidance in March COVID-19 was not widespread.”

It also highlights the government’s failure to provide adequate personal protective equipment (PPE) to the social care sector – while also changing guidance on the use of PPE 40 times – and the failure to test social care staff and volunteers during the first weeks of the crisis.

Between 6 April and 19 May, the report says, “more than 80 per cent of local resilience forums reported that PPE was having a high or significant disruptive impact in their area across health and social care services, putting staff and others at risk”.

Among its other criticisms, the report says it had not been clear who was leading on the government’s social care response to the pandemic.

And it highlighted how – although various pieces of guidance had been produced earlier – it took the government until 15 April to publish its action plan for adult social care, more than four weeks after the initial NHS letter on plans to respond to the COVID-19 outbreak.

The committee does not appear to have taken evidence from any disabled people’s organisation or service-user during its inquiry, but the report still highlights three of the 17 ways in which the government breached the rights of disabled people, according to research published last week by Disability News Service.

Meg Hillier, the committee’s Labour chair, said: “The deaths of people in care homes devastated many, many families.

“They and we don’t have time for promises and slogans, or exercises in blame.

“We weren’t prepared for the first wave.

“Putting all else aside, government must use the narrow window we have now to plan for a second wave. Lives depend upon getting our response right.”

For the Liberal Democrats, Sarah Olney, a member of the committee, said: “Ministers must read and act on this report before it is too late to prepare for a second wave.

“That means rapidly upscaling the strategy to test, trace and isolate every case of coronavirus to keep people safe and prevent new surges.

“To improve public confidence, the prime minister must set out a timetable for the independent inquiry into the government’s actions.

“With that, we can ensure the same mistakes never happen again.”

The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) said it would respond to the report in due course.

But a DHSC spokesperson said: “Throughout this unprecedented global pandemic we have been working closely with the sector and public health experts to put in place guidance and support for adult social care.

“Alongside an extra £1.3 billion to support the hospital discharge process, we have provided 172 million items of PPE to the social care sector since the start of the pandemic and are testing all residents and staff, including repeat testing for staff and residents in care homes for over 65s or those with dementia.

“We know there is a need for a long-term solution for social care and we will bring forward a plan that puts social care on a sustainable footing to ensure the reforms will last long into the future.”

*For sources of information and support during the coronavirus crisis, visit the DNS advice and information page

30 July 2020


Coronavirus: EHRC pressed to launch inquiry into 17 breaches of rights during pandemic

The equality and human rights watchdog is facing pressure to launch an inquiry into how the UK government breached the rights of disabled people in at least 17 different ways during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) did not rule out launching an inquiry this week, but it promised only to “actively” consider how it would use its legal powers to address the impact coronavirus has had on disabled people.

Last week, Disability News Service (DNS) published new research which showed how the government repeatedly breached disabled people’s rights during the crisis.

Among the breaches that have been proved to have cost lives are the delays in testing social care staff for coronavirus, and the decision to discharge hospital patients into care homes without testing them for COVID-19 (see separate story).

Others include restricting disabled people’s rights through the government’s emergency Coronavirus Act; failing to ensure disabled people on direct payments had access to personal protective equipment for their personal assistants; and failing to provide a British Sign Language interpreter during the daily televised COVID-19 briefings.

This week, the pan-impairment disabled people’s organisation Inclusion London called on EHRC to use its powers to launch an inquiry into how the government had apparently failed to comply with its duties under the Equality Act 2010.

Jon Abrams, Inclusion London’s campaigns and justice officer, said:It is a scandal that the Equality and Human Rights Commission has not used its regulatory powers to establish a formal inquiry into the treatment of disabled people by the government.

“This state of affairs cannot continue because it will cost more lives.

Over the last decade, thousands of avoidable and premature deaths have been linked to austerity and government welfare reforms.

“Moreover, in 2018, Professor Alston, the UN’s special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, concluded that the UK government had inflicted ‘great misery’ on disabled people and other marginalised groups, with ministers in a state of ‘denial’ about the impact of their policies.

Our recently published report, Abandoned, Forgotten and Ignored, paints a stark picture of a government that has from the outset of COVID-19  discriminated against us and ignored our needs.”

He said the “awful consequences” of this are reflected in the “grim data” released by the Office for National Statistics, which found that about 22,500 disabled people of all ages died due to COVID-19 between 2 March and 15 May, compared with about 15,500 non-disabled people.

Abrams said: “It is imperative, therefore, that the EHRC – as our national human rights institution – takes robust and muscular action and launches an enquiry to challenge the policies and practices that are causing significant disadvantage and damage to disabled people across the country.”

Vicky Foxcroft, Labour’s shadow minister for disabled people, said she was in favour of an urgent and quick inquiry – if it was properly independent of the government – but said that it must lead to action.

But she pointed to the huge cuts in funding the government has imposed on the commission over the last decade.

She said: “The EHRC needs to be properly funded in order to carry out these urgent investigations.”

An EHRC spokesperson declined to say if the commission was considering an inquiry.

But she said: “We are very concerned about the impact coronavirus has had on disabled people.

“We have been active on a range of issues during the crisis – from access to appropriate healthcare and food shopping, to treatment in social care settings and the provision of accessible information on the pandemic.

“We are now actively considering how and on what areas to use our legal powers as we move into recovery, but we must learn from this crisis by ensuring that disabled people are supported and, where necessary, protected in the event of a second wave.”

Those legal powers could include launching an investigation, holding an inquiry, and requiring that a public body like the government stops any discriminatory practices.

*For sources of information and support during the coronavirus crisis, visit the DNS advice and information page

30 July 2020


Disabled campaigner’s mandatory reconsideration court victory over DWP

A disabled campaigner says his high court victory over the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has shown that it is possible to “put the rule of law into the hands of ordinary people”.

Michael Connor spoke out after a judge ruled that DWP’s mandatory reconsideration (MR) process – introduced seven years ago as part of the coalition government’s programme of social security cuts and reforms – was unlawful when applied to claimants of employment and support allowance (ESA), the out-of-work disability benefit.

The high court announced on Friday (24 July) that Connor had been successful in his legal bid to have the MR process declared unlawful for ESA claimants.

Even though there are no MRs in the universal credit system, which is gradually replacing ESA, the victory should help thousands of existing recipients of income-related ESA who are found fit for work after a review of their claim and wish to appeal to a tribunal.

Connor, from Staffordshire, said he had wanted to show that it was possible to “put the rule of law into the hands of ordinary people to allow them to have power to bring even their own government to court if they act above the law”.

Although it is not yet clear what action DWP will take after the court ruling, Connor is hoping welfare rights groups will use the judgement to call for an end to all mandatory reconsiderations.

And he may now launch a separate judicial review case over his claim for personal independence payment (PIP), which was also rejected in 2018 following an MR and for which he is still awaiting an appeal.

Connor, who represented himself during the case as a “litigant in person”, had to wait more than four months for his MR to be heard – longer than usual because of a DWP administrative error – after he was found fit for work and lost his eligibility for ESA in October 2018.

He was eventually told, in March 2019, that DWP had upheld its decision, but he did not go ahead with an appeal as he had instead made successful claims for carer’s allowance and income support.

While he had been waiting for the MR decision, he did not receive the assessment phase rate of ESA, because of a DWP regulation which says that such payments are suspended while an MR is being decided, once a claimant has been found fit for work.

Once the MR rubber-stamps the initial decision, the claimant is allowed to lodge an appeal, and will then receive ESA again until the case is heard by a tribunal.

Connor argued in court that the regulation breached his right to a fair hearing under article six of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), and that the MR process had placed him in a state of “legal and financial limbo, distress and destitution”.

Mr Justice Swift announced on Friday that the MR regulation was “a disproportionate interference with the right of access to court”, even for the typical waits of seven to 10 days for an MR to be completed.

And even though alternative benefits could be available during the period spent waiting for an MR decision, the judge concluded that this requirement was “likely to be cumbersome” and “places a burden on ESA claimants”.

He said that DWP had provided “no explanation” for why there was no payment pending an MR decision.

And he concluded that the MR regulation, as applied to ESA claimants, “does not strike the required fair balance, and for that reason is an unjustified impediment to the right of access to court” under article six of ECHR and was unlawful.

Connor, who has a first-class law degree, a masters in law and a postgraduate legal practice certificate, and is a former welfare rights worker, was helped in his case by a crowdfunding appeal, which eventually raised more than £7,500, and was backed by members of the Benefits and Work website.

He is now gathering evidence of the “devastating effect” that unfairly losing PIP has on disabled people.

He is convinced that the MR regulation itself is unlawful and should be quashed, and that it discriminates against disabled people.

The MR process was branded a DWP delaying tactic after it was introduced in 2013, with official figures showing that most initial decisions were rubber-stamped at the MR stage.

There has been a increase in the proportion of ESA MRs that result in DWP revising its original decision since April 2019, when more than 70 per cent led to no change.

At one stage, in early 2016, nearly 90 per cent of DWP decisions were rubber-stamped at MR.

A DWP spokesperson said the department was considering the judgement.

30 July 2020


Deaf actors ‘feel like outsiders’ because of industry’s BSL barriers

Deaf actors who use British Sign Language (BSL) have described how they feel like “outsiders” because of the barriers they face within the industry.

A trio of Deaf actors spoke out at the online launch of new guidance for the industry yesterday (Wednesday) by the performers’ and creative practitioners’ union Equity.

The Guide to Good Practice with BSL in the Arts includes sections on casting deaf actors, casting hearing actors with BSL experience, and working with deaf actors.

Actor Sophie Stone said she often turned up to auditions where producers were seeking a D/deaf actor, only to find there were no interpreters.

She said: “It completely knocked my confidence.

“It felt like a very inequitable process where a hearing actor could come in, pretend to be deaf, sign a little bit, and it felt like the barriers were already in place because there had been no consideration for a deaf performer turning up and feeling like they had an equal presence in the room.”

Stone said she “always felt like an outsider” as a Deaf actor, and that this “frustration was immense”.

She said: “I still feel that now. Sometimes it’s a tick-box exercise. It’s about bringing a deaf actor in but there’s no thought as to how to support that actor once they’re in place.

“It feels like we are constantly fighting for everything we need, which in turn makes us look difficult, because we are not being represented properly.”

Another Deaf actor, Nadia Nadarajah, said she was often forced to source BSL interpreters herself for auditions, with just a few hours’ notice, which made it harder to prepare for the audition as an actor.

She said: “There are 150,000 Deaf sign language users across the UK. We are visible in terms of using that language, so if you’re walking around going to work, shopping, you’ll see Deaf people out there on the street; we are not hidden away.”

She said BSL must be used “authentically” on television, in film and on stage.

She added: “It’s a country that needs to have its BSL represented accurately and authentically.”

Julian Peedle-Calloo, a Deaf actor, writer and presenter, said there needed to be far greater representation of deaf people in television programmes to reflect the reality of British life.

He said: “There are deaf people who work in forensic science, there are deaf people who work in Interpol, there are deaf people who work in the police, in the fraud investigation team, in computer forensics, etc, whereas TV programmes don’t represent that.”

He added: “Some productions are nervous of using deaf actors, and they are nervous of using sign language and how sign language will work.”

But he said that using a BSL-using actor and an interpreter can be easily achieved and is “not a huge hurdle to overcome”.

He said this was why he was so pleased to see the guide, which would be a “valuable resource” for the industry.

Alim Jayda, an actor and BSL interpreter and author of the new guide, said he wanted to make it a “go-to document”.

Jayda, who worked on the guide with the deaf-led theatre company Deafinitely Theatre, spoke about the wider discrimination faced by BSL-users.

He said deaf children were still being punished for signing at British deaf schools, while medical professionals were telling parents of children newly-diagnosed as deaf that they should not encourage their children to use BSL because it will “hinder their development”.

But he said: “What research actually says is that sign language alongside speech assists development and does not hinder it.”

Jayda, whose parents are both Deaf and who is himself hard-of-hearing, said there had been “years and years and years of oppression, which still continues to this day” against users of BSL.

He said: “If we see sign language represented in television, in film and on stage and it is represented in the highest quality, then that has an influence, it has a ripple effect, it means that politically the culture will change.”

Paula Garfield, creative director of Deafinitely Theatre, said the oral education system had “failed thousands, if not millions, of deaf children and I was one of them as well.

“I was taught the speaking and listening approach and if I tried to sign I was punished and I was called a monkey, and that was incredibly damaging and I grew up with that and my self-esteem was very low.

“I left school at 17 with an equivalent reading age of a hearing child of eight and that severely impacted my life, but I do have to say that working in theatre has saved my life because it’s the only place I feel free to express myself freely via sign language.

“I do hope that these guidelines do effect change because a lot of deaf people have been suffering for so long and it is now time to make this change.”

30 July 2020


Round-up: Coffey rejects ESA call, face covering exemptions, BFI presses Reset… and sunflower lanyards

Work and pensions secretary Therese Coffey has rejected calls from her own social security advisers to give claimants of employment and support allowance (ESA) the same £1,000 increase in their annual allowance given to those receiving universal credit.

The increase, which will last a year and also applies to those receiving working tax credit, was part of the government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, and was announced on 20 March.

But Coffey has refused to extend the temporary increase to claimants of ESA, or to those on jobseeker’s allowance (JSA) or income support.

The social security advisory committee (SSAC) called on 27 May for the increase to be extended, saying that, despite the “serious IT challenges”, it was “increasingly untenable for this group of claimants to be excluded and to continue to have a lower level of income than those in receipt of Universal Credit and Working Tax Credit”.

Now, two months later, Coffey has responded to the SSAC letter, and has refused to extend the increase.

She suggested that doing so would put at risk the “safety and the stability of the benefit system” and said she had “no plans to increase Employment and Support Allowance, Jobseeker’s Allowance or Income Support”.

Among those who have criticised the failure to act is Disability Rights UK, which wrote to the minister for disabled people last month to say that the refusal to match the £20-a-week rise “discriminates against the millions of disabled people on other benefits who have not received the same increase”.

The government has released a list of people who are exempt from new rules that cover the wearing of face coverings in shops, supermarkets, shopping centres and transport hubs.

The list was released as the rules came into force last Friday (24 July), along with a link to messages explaining that someone is exempt from the new rules, which can be printed or downloaded and used as a badge or card or shown on a mobile phone.

The exemptions are the same as those which already applied to the wearing of face coverings on public transport.

Justin Tomlinson, the minister for disabled people, said: “The new regulations are an important step forward in our efforts to defeat coronavirus but I would urge the public and businesses to be mindful of people who are exempt from wearing a face covering – particularly those with disabilities and health conditions.

“Some disabilities are hidden and not immediately obvious and everyone must play their part and act sensitively towards people who may need additional support.”

The British Film Institute’s disability advisory board has helped launch a new project to persuade the screen industry to improve how it engages with disabled talent behind and in front of the camera.

Press Reset wants to see the industry (R)ecruit responsibly; (E)ngage with the disability community; (S)et employment targets for disabled talent; ensure (E)qual pay; and (T)hink about access.

Among those on the disability advisory board are disabled actors Sam Renke, Melissa Johns and Cherylee Houston, actor and presenter Adam Pearson, actor, writer and producer Kim Tserkezie, and Andrew Miller, the government’s disability champion for arts and culture.

Miller said: “Before this pandemic, representation of disabled people was wholly inadequate in our industry, but solid progress towards equality was being made.

“We mustn’t allow the pandemic to risk disabled people becoming invisible in our media once again. It’s time to Press Reset.”

Britain’s rail companies announced this week that all of them now recognise the Hidden Disabilities Sunflower scheme, which provides lanyards and cards that disabled people can wear or show to let others know they have an invisible impairment.

All train operators and Network Rail said they were now signed up to the scheme, which allows disabled passengers to show others that they might need more time or support.

Staff are now being trained to recognise the sunflower symbol when it is worn as a lanyard or shown as a card.

Disabled writer and blogger Chloe Tear, who uses the lanyard, said: “I believe the sunflower lanyard is a great initiative that gives disabled people control around discussing their condition.

“The subtle symbol means we won’t have to continuously explain and often justify our needs if they are invisible to others.

“Despite having a physical disability and being partially sighted, if my cane is folded up and I’m sat down it wouldn’t be hard to mistake me for a non-disabled young woman.

“The fear around not receiving support or being judged for using priority seats is eased by the sunflower lanyard and card.”

30 July 2020


News provided by John Pring at