Coronavirus: Caution and distrust as ministers issue new guidance for shielders

Disabled people have questioned the government’s decision to ease the stringent guidance that was previously advising those shielding from coronavirus to stay inside for weeks on end.

In a surprise move at the weekend, ministers suddenly announced that those who have been shielding for the last 10 weeks – and who had been expecting to continue having to do so until the end of June at the earliest – could now leave their homes for outdoor exercise.

The move was announced despite the pandemic “alert level” remaining at level four, the same level as on 10 May.

The new guidance for the 2.2 million people seen as “clinically extremely vulnerable” stresses that they should continue to “take precautions” and “maintain strict social distancing”.

Those living alone can spend time outdoors with one person from another household, and this should ideally be the same person each time, according to the guidance, which is only advisory and applies to England.

But a succession of disabled people’s organisations and disabled campaigners have raised concerns about the government’s decision to update the guidance.

Svetlana Kotova, director of campaigns and justice for Inclusion London, said: “The situation does not suddenly become safer just because the government says so.

“We believe disabled people who are shielding should be very cautious following new advice and we know many feel they have no option but to continue to stay at home.

“With all that has happened to disabled people during this emergency, many of us are already finding it difficult to trust and follow the government’s advice, especially when it is issued out of the blue, without warning or consultation.

“This increasing lack of trust in government advice is shared more widely in society and we are concerned that the undermining of social distancing guidance will further impact negatively on people who are shielding or just beginning to venture out.

“Longer term there are many serious issues relating to inclusion, rights, discrimination and poverty for people who are shielding that need to be urgently addressed by this government, and the government needs to do this work with us not to us.”

The grassroots disabled people’s organisation Bristol Reclaiming Independent Living (BRIL) said it believed the government’s actions were placing people in danger.

A BRIL spokesperson said: “Due to the government’s failure to put people before business, and to listen to advice, a second wave of COVID-19 is now likely.

“The shielded population is being left on the wayside. We are worried about the safety of many disabled and chronically ill people.

“BRIL have not seen any evidence from the government that suggests that it is safe to accept or follow this new guidance.

“They have not consulted anyone at all, evidence has been ignored and the information is not in easy read or other accessible formats.”

BRIL said the guidance had been changed without warning or consultation, that GPs, hospitals and social care services had not been informed, while the government had ignored evidence from its own scientists, doctors and public health professionals.

BRIL said the guidance was “unclear, confusing and contradictory”, and added: “Despite their promises, they have changed ‘the rules’ for people at the highest risk, at the same time as efforts to keep people safe seem to be being abandoned.

“Schools are being pressured to re-open and people are being forced into workplaces, even though the number of people dying and catching the virus is still high.”

Jeff, who is shielding, has told BRIL he does not think the guidance should have been changed, and that he would not be altering his behaviour until he was sure there was not going to be a second wave of infections.

Caroline, a BRIL member, said she feared the move would mean “carers and people supporting people who were shielded could now be forced into prioritising their jobs over their family and friends’ safety”.

Disability Rights UK (DR UK) said any decisions had to be taken by the person who was shielding and not by the government.

Fazilet Hadi, DR UK’s head of policy, said the new advice appeared to be in “direct contravention” of guidance issued last month.

She said it was “imperative” that the government continued to give people the choice to continue to shield if they were advised to do so by their healthcare professionals.

She said: “The government has started to prepare the nation for a winding down of support services this autumn.

“This cannot be a blanket approach including those who still need to shield.

“Vital supply schemes for food and medicines, along with furlough, need to continue to be offered until such time as it is 100 per cent safe for vulnerable people to resume normal life activities.”

Vicky Foxcroft, Labour’s shadow minister for disabled people, who is shielding at home, said she also had concerns about the government’s advice.

She said it had not been reassuring that news of the change had been released at 11pm on a Saturday night, just a day before it came into force.

Foxcroft said she had not yet left her home, three days after the government altered its advice.

She said: “I want to hear scientists say it’s safe. Unfortunately, I’ve heard too many say that out of all of the changes [to ease the lockdown] the one they think is the worst is this one.

“I think we need to hear more from scientists. People want to make informed decisions.”

But she said she understood that others who have been shielding will want to take the risk and take some outdoor exercise, and she added: “I am lucky, I have got a garden. I can’t imagine what it is like if you haven’t got a garden.”

Disabled campaigner Fleur Perry was among those disabled people who have been shielding throughout the 10 weeks who said they did not believe it was safe to follow the government’s new advice.

She said: “I’m not going anywhere yet, as I don’t feel that it’s safe for me.

“I haven’t seen any evidence to justify this change, and although the number of cases is on a slow downward trend, we don’t yet know the impact of schools and businesses beginning to reopen.

“Some commentators have predicted a second wave, and I don’t want to be part of it.

“Also, the way we avoid a second wave is by not going back to business-as-usual too soon.

“By not visiting family and friends yet, I’m helping them to stay safe.

“I miss them, but I want this to be over, as quickly as possible, and so I’m going to carry on doing everything I can not to catch the virus or spread it.”

She said another safety concern was that various healthcare policies which appear to be discriminatory are still in place.

She is still waiting for NHS England to publish a new policy on hospital visitors so that it no longer discriminates against disabled people, following separate legal actions taken by Perry and fellow disabled campaigner Mark Williams.

She said: “If I suddenly became unwell, particularly during the second wave, I do not feel certain that I could access treatment safely on an equal basis with everyone else.

“I don’t want to increase my risk of being in a situation where I have to discuss legal arguments for my right to treatment from a hospital bed.”

Disabled campaigner and retired Paralympian Chris Channon – who has been self-isolating, although he is not in the group who have been told to shield – was another who said he would be ignoring the government’s advice.

He said: “I just don’t trust this government anymore.

“They released this announcement at the weekend without any scientific evidence or medical advice for specific conditions.

“All this when the infection rate remains high and the daily death toll is still in the hundreds.

“I think there will be a second wave and for that reason I’m staying in.”

Baroness [Jane] Campbell, a disabled crossbench peer, said she had “mixed feelings” about the new guidance.

She said it made it easier for some disabled people to take responsibility for their own lives and to “make a personal judgement call about when to go out and when not to”.

She said: “Nobody is forcing us to go out and about or meet another person.

“I can see the mental health benefits for those who live alone and feel a heavy burden of isolation.

“Personally, I am happy to go for a walk in the park or meet a friend in the garden.

“I am not happy to go shopping, or anywhere else that would require me or my personal assistant to touch anything somebody else has.

“Having read the scientific information, I am satisfied that it is a lot harder to catch the virus when outside in an uncrowded space.”

But she said she did not want the government to use the new advice as an excuse to deny disabled people the protective equipment they needed or other support, such as assistance with shopping or food parcels.

And she said she wondered why the government had suddenly changed its advice when it was previously assumed that she and others would have to shield for far longer.

She said: “What has changed their minds? The scientific advance or something more worrying?

“I don’t like to think that we are seen as the expendables. Like those in care homes…”

She added: “What really worries me, is children returning to school from today.

“Many personal assistants, including two of my own, have children.

“I can easily see the small ones bringing home the virus and then the parents passing it on to us.

“With up to two weeks before symptoms, it’s in the house before you detect it.”

Disability Labour said it was “both dismayed and frightened by the actions of Boris Johnson in ignoring the science and putting political expediency before people’s lives”.

Fran Springfield, its co-chair, was also another disabled campaigner to raise concerns about the return to school of many pupils this week.

She said: “Whilst we are now allowed out, in restricted circumstances, many of us are too frightened to leave our homes.

“The re-opening of schools has seen many parents reluctant to send their children back, because of the difficulties of ensuring that young children observe both social distancing and hygiene precautions.

“For parents with disabilities or those who have children or family members who are shielding, this risk of a child unwittingly bringing back COVID-19 from school is a risk too far.

“We have seen what has happened in care homes, no or little personal protective equipment, people discharged from hospital without being tested and many residents dying of COVID-19 who are not counted in the stats because of lack of testing.”

The disabled people’s organisation Disability North said the change in guidance had come at short notice.

Vici Richardson, Disability North’s community care and personalisation advisor, who blogged the day before the government announcement about her 17-year-old disabled son’s experience of shielding, said some disabled people she and colleagues had spoken to had discussed the shielding issue with their healthcare professionals and had “taken safe steps to access the outdoors” before the new guidance was issued.

She said: “Many felt comfortable doing this whilst the lockdown restrictions remained in place.

“Now we see pictures in the media of busy parks and beaches, many people are now understandably wary about how safe it is outside.

“Whilst we welcome advice that those in the shielded category can now leave their homes for some fresh air, we would advise that if anyone is not feeling comfortable about this to have a discussion with their healthcare professional.

“For anyone leaving their home we would strongly encourage them to follow the guidance on social distancing, avoid busy places and practice good hygiene.”

She was another to warn of the fear that, as larger parts of society opened up, those in the shielded category would be expected to return to work.

She added: “The government should be consulting and planning with disabled people and shielders on how best to ease these restrictions.”

Communities secretary Robert Jenrick defended the government’s move.

He said: “Those shielding from coronavirus have made huge sacrifices over recent months to protect both themselves and the NHS – they deserve our thanks and our support for their efforts.

“Incidence rates of coronavirus are now significantly lower than before these measures were put in place.

“That’s why we are focused on finding the right balance between continuing to protect those at the greatest clinical risk, whilst easing restrictions on their daily lives to make the difficult situation more bearable – particularly enabling the contact with loved ones they and we all seek.

“We will now be providing regular updates to the shielded to guide them through the next phase and we hope, to better and less restrictive times.

“In the meantime, we will continue to provide the support that the shielded in our communities need.”

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

4 June 2020

 

Coronavirus: Shielding MP takes legal advice over ‘discriminatory’ new rules

The shadow minister for disabled people has taken legal advice over the government’s “outrageous” decision to prevent MPs at serious risk from coronavirus from continuing to vote and take part in debates from their own home.

Labour’s Vicky Foxcroft, who has a long-term health condition, was unable to vote on Tuesday because of the government’s decision.

She told Disability News Service (DNS) yesterday (Wednesday) that she and other MPs at particular risk from COVID-19 had been discriminated against.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has also criticised the government this week over its stance, after refusing to do so last week.

Foxcroft spoke out after the Tory leader of the house, Jacob Rees-Mogg, 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 the safety of their own homes.

That decision forced hundreds of MPs back to the Houses of Parliament this week after their Whitsun break – including at least two MPs who are at high risk from the virus due to diabetes (see separate story) – despite the country still being in lockdown.

Rees-Mogg said this was necessary because the role of the House of Commons “can only properly be fulfilled when members are here in person”, and claimed his decision was “completely in accordance” with the “equalities considerations” of the government and parliament.

But Labour leader Keir Starmer yesterday – during prime minister’s questions – described Tuesday’s lengthy queues of MP waiting to vote, while others were unable to do so at all, as “shameful”.

He added: “If any other employer behaved like this, it would be a clear and obvious case of indirect discrimination under the Equality Act 2010.”

Later yesterday, business secretary Alok Sharma had to be tested for coronavirus and is now said to be self-isolating at home after becoming unwell while speaking in the Commons chamber.

The government has U-turned twice this week on the issue of shielding MPs, firstly by saying that MPs who need to shield for health reasons would be able to question ministers and respond to ministerial statements remotely, and then – through a comment by Boris Johnson at prime minister’s questions yesterday – stating that they would also be allowed to vote by proxy*.

MPs are set to vote on this proposal – which will allow MPs to vote by proxy if they are “clinically extremely vulnerable” or “clinically vulnerable” – this afternoon.

But despite these concessions, broadly welcomed, such MPs will still not be allowed to take part in debates from home.

Foxcroft told DNS yesterday that she had spoken to barristers about the “outrageous” situation facing her and other shielding MPs, but had not yet made a decision on possible legal action until it was clear what further steps the government would take.

But she said she was “absolutely” clear that she had been discriminated against.

She said: “I have so many important things I need to be saying and raising in parliament.

“I think I was doing as good a job as I could before with online proceedings. I was able to push and get some progress in some areas.

“Now I find myself talking about me and not the issues I want to talk about.”

She added: “This is how disabled people have felt right through this crisis. They are an afterthought.”

Foxcroft revealed to DNS in April that she was in self-isolation during the pandemic because she was on immunosuppressant medication that places her among those at most serious risk from COVID-19.

She said she had spoken this week to her GP and asked if she could stop shielding to attend parliament and was told: “You can ignore the guidance but you would be putting yourself in grave danger by doing that.”

She added: “I didn’t class myself as a disabled person before, but I have actually been disabled from doing elements of my job during this crisis because of the things that the government have chosen to pursue.

“They had the reasonable adjustments in place… and then they decided just to get rid of them.

“It seems so odd that we had something that worked and we can’t stick with that.”

Foxcroft also issued a joint statement this week with the disabled Tory MP and former minister Robert Halfon, who is also shielding for health reasons.

They said: “Disabled people have felt like an afterthought throughout this pandemic and it is therefore vital that the government looks again at the proposed return to physical participation.

“Although the hybrid arrangements were not perfect, parliament has already shown its ability to ensure that everyone’s needs can be accommodated.

“We must lead by example, not disenfranchise members and their constituents.”

Halfon had earlier accused Rees-Mogg of being “stern and unbending” and of wanting MPs who are shielding “to become parliamentary eunuchs”, while he said there was a “Tarzan-like mentality” from traditionalist MPs.

He told Sky News: “I’ve done my job properly every day for the last 10 weeks at home, working very hard for my constituents, but I want the right, my right, to choose whether to vote.”

He later welcomed Johnson’s apparent move to allow proxy voting.

Others who have said they cannot return safely to parliament at present because of the pandemic include the disabled Labour MP Marsha de Cordova, the shadow secretary of state for women and qualities.

She said last week that the government had “acted recklessly to end hybrid proceedings in parliament without any proper consultation with ill and disabled MPs”.

After EHRC refused to criticise the government last week, its chief executive, Rebecca Hilsenrath, has now criticised its actions.

She said in a statement: “It cannot be right for parliament to proceed without provision for remote participation, when many elected representatives cannot attend in person.

“This will place at significant disadvantage MPs who are shielding or self-isolating because of age, disability, health conditions or pregnancy, as well as other members who will struggle to attend the chamber in person due to travel restrictions and caring responsibilities.

“We urge the government to agree a revised proposal that upholds the principles of equality and human rights and ensures that parliament shows leadership to the rest of the country in inclusive workplaces, especially when the decisions which result affect us all.”

Baroness [Jane] Campbell, a disabled crossbench peer, who – along with other peers – has been able to continue working remotely from home during lockdown, said the government’s decision to stop remote working for MPs had been “totally reckless and morally wrong” and that the treatment of Foxcroft was “outrageous”.

She said: “Those of us who would be at risk if we went to Westminster should be allowed to remotely work, as I am and many others [are] in the House of Lords.”

Meanwhile, the PCS union has warned that the government’s decision to recall all MPs and end the hybrid system meant there were “significant risks” to its own members, particularly those unable to work from home, such as security, cleaning and catering staff, as well as MPs at particular risk from the virus.

The union said it believed that “even with social distancing and personal protective equipment, staff working in the House of Commons, the Lords and the parliamentary estate will not be safe from coronavirus”.

*Arranging for another MP to vote on their behalf

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

4 June 2020

 

Coronavirus: ‘Shocking’ figures show disabled people ‘have become cannon fodder’

“Shocking” new figures showing a huge rise in deaths of people with learning difficulties in the care system are probably “the tip of the iceberg”, but still show how disabled people have become “cannon fodder” during the pandemic, say campaigners.

The figures, released by the Care Quality Commission (CQC) this week following pressure from an ongoing legal action, suggest that the number of deaths more than doubled compared with last year.

Between 10 April and 15 May, care services that provide support to people with learning difficulties and autistic people reported 386 deaths of people with learning difficulties, compared with 165 in the same period last year.

This was an increase of 134 per cent, said CQC.

Of the 386 people who died this year, 206 were due to suspected or confirmed COVID-19.

Of those who died, 184 people were receiving care from community-based adult social care services and 195 had been living in residential settings.

CQC suggested that the true number of deaths related to COVID-19 was likely to be even higher.

It was unable to say how many of those who died were also autistic.

Simone Aspis, a disabled activist campaigning to highlight and reduce the number of deaths of autistic people and people with learning difficulties, said the figures were “shocking” but just “the tip of the iceberg”.

She said they appeared to show the impact of the disablism and discrimination that was “alive and kicking within the NHS”, such as within guidance for the NHS and attempts to place “do not attempt resuscitation” orders in disabled people’s medical records.

Aspis hopes more accurate figures will eventually allow a comparison between the prevalence of people with learning difficulties and autistic people dying from COVID-19 and other groups.

And she hopes they will also show if people with learning difficulties and autistic people are more likely to die through COVID-19 if they are in an institution rather than living in their own homes.

But she also stressed the importance of ensuring that all such data being released was accessible to people with learning difficulties “so we can understand whatever action we need to take to put pressure on the government to do away with the discrimination that disabled people and people with learning difficulties are facing daily in the healthcare system”.

She told Disability News Service: “If we have got the data, we as a group of people are able to act on it.”

Despite the publication of the figures, Aspis and three other campaigners* are to continue with a legal action against CQC, NHS England, health and social care secretary Matt Hancock, NHS Digital, and the UK Statistics Authority.

They say their failure to publish “accurate and reliable” data on how many autistic people and people with learning difficulties are dying from COVID-19 is both “irrational” and “discriminatory”.

Funding for the case is being crowd-sourced as part of the #EveryDeathCounts campaign, with legal support from solicitors Rook Irwin Sweeney and barrister Steve Broach.

Kamran Mallick, chief executive of Disability Rights UK, said: “We said at the beginning of the pandemic that disabled people must not be allowed to become cannon fodder.

“It would appear that for those who have needed the most support, this has come to pass.

“People with learning disabilities have a life expectancy of 20 years less than those without outside of pandemic times.

“This virus is shining a spotlight on those life expectancy inequalities, and exacerbating them to frightening levels.”

Alex Rook, a partner with Rook Irwin Sweeney, said the information published by CQC this week was only “partial” and was likely to be an under-estimate of the true number of deaths because of the way the data was collected by the regulator.

He said it also failed to cover the start of the pandemic, and there was no information on how many autistic people had died.

Rook said his firm would be writing to Hancock, NHS England and CQC this week to explain why the information published so far was incomplete and to give them “one more chance” to provide the necessary data before they pressed ahead with the legal action.

*Mark Neary, who took a ground-breaking Court of Protection case in 2010 relating to the unlawful deprivation of liberty experienced by his son Steven; Dr Sara Ryan, who has fought for justice for her son Connor Sparrowhawk, who died a preventable death in an NHS institution in 2013; and open justice campaigner Dr George Julian

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

4 June 2020

 

Coronavirus: Government agency refuses to apologise over misleading diabetes claim

A government agency has refused to apologise after issuing misleading information about the risks faced by people with diabetes who return to their workplace during the coronavirus pandemic.

Public Health England (PHE) already faced questions over why it apparently told the House of Commons speaker – Sir Lindsay Hoyle, who has type one diabetes – that he could safely continue to work in parliament because he was under 70 (he is 62) and had no other underlying health conditions.

This advice appears to conflict with the government’s official guidance, updated this week, which stresses that people with diabetes are “clinically vulnerable” to COVID-19.

It also conflicts with recent NHS figures which have shown that almost one in three people who have died with COVID-19 in hospital in England had diabetes.

And this week, when Disability News Service (DNS) raised fresh concerns about the advice PHE had given the speaker, a spokesperson said: “The government guidance on returning to work does not preclude vulnerable groups from working but says they should take particular care to minimise contact with others outside their households.”

In fact, the guidance says that people with diabetes are “advised to stay at home as much as possible and, if you do go out, take particular care to minimise contact with others outside your household”.

When the PHE spokesperson was asked why his statement ignored the crucial first part of the advice, he quoted again from the government guidance, this time by quoting advice issued to everyone – and not just those with health conditions – that you “should go to work if you cannot work from home and your business has not been required to close by law”.

PHE had refused to apologise for its misleading information by noon today (Thursday).

Meanwhile, people with diabetes have told DNS this week that the speaker could be risking the lives of other people with diabetes by continuing to work in the Houses of Parliament during the coronavirus crisis.

They have warned that employers could use his case as a reason to force people with diabetes back into the workplace when they are still trying to shelter at home from the virus.

There was also criticism from the disabled crossbench peer Baroness [Jane] Campbell, who said the speaker was “foolish” for continuing to work in parliament, rather than working from home like other MPs and peers who are shielding from the virus.

Those risks were highlighted yesterday (Wednesday) when business secretary Alok Sharma had to be tested for coronavirus.

He is now said to be self-isolating at home after becoming unwell while speaking in the Commons chamber.

Theresa, who has type one diabetes – like the speaker – told Disability News Service this week that she was “very concerned” to hear of his actions.

She said: “I have type one diabetes and have been working safely and effectively at home.

“My employer is great but this is extremely anxiety-provoking as it could cause pressure for me and many others to return to unsafe environments.”

She added: “I’m not convinced the public are all following social distancing and it doesn’t feel safe to do more than go for a walk locally so that’s all I’m doing.”

Jon, who is autistic and has type two diabetes, said he feared the speaker’s actions would persuade other people with diabetes to return to the workplace too soon, particularly because of the “startling lack of clarity” from the government on what they should do.

And he said it was “a huge worry” that employers would use the speaker’s example to force staff with diabetes back to work by telling them: “Other people are doing it so why shouldn’t you?”

Jon, who works as an autism advocate on the south coast, said: “I can see some employers would use that.

“This isn’t about whether you might get a bad cold. You might die. There’s a clear and present danger.”

He and his wife have spent 98 per cent of their time indoors since lockdown began in March, he said, and at one stage did not leave the house for several weeks because he was so scared by the number of people he saw on the streets.

In the last couple of weeks, they had slowly begun taking early morning walks to a local cemetery, but even stopped that this week because they saw that people appeared to have “given up social distancing”.

Jon said the government’s actions during the pandemic made him feel “as if we don’t count”.

He added: “It makes me feel as if I am a sacrifice, an experiment.”

Tim, who also has type one diabetes, said: “I’ve been type one diabetic for a long time and had the flu when I was 18.

“Diabetics are at greater risk from the flu and my diabetic consultant was concerned enough to send me to hospital, where I stayed for two-and-a-half weeks on a drip.

“There’s no jab for this novel virus, which is proving to be worse than the flu, so I think it’s dangerous for the speaker to go back to work.”

He said he was concerned that the speaker’s actions might encourage other people with diabetes to return to their workplace too soon, and that they might help employers force staff with diabetes back to work when it was not safe.

He said: “I am concerned that the speaker’s actions may cause both of those things to happen.”

Since DNS spoke this week to these three people with diabetes, it has also emerged that the former prime minister, Theresa May, who has type one diabetes, attended parliament yesterday to criticise the government’s proposed 14-day quarantine for new arrivals to the UK.

And Diane Abbott, who has type two diabetes, voted in person in parliament on Tuesday so she could oppose the government’s plans to end the hybrid arrangements that previously allowed some MPs to attend parliament and others to take part in debates online and use an online system to vote from the safety of their own homes.

Vicky Foxcroft, Labour’s shadow minister for disabled people, who has herself been shielding since the start of the crisis, and whose partner has type one diabetes, called on the government to produce detailed figures so that people with diabetes in different situations can assess their own risk.

She declined to comment on the speaker’s actions, but she said: “I worry for his health and want him to stay safe.”

Foxcroft, who has accused the government of discriminating against her by not allowing her and other shielding MPs to vote and take part in debates from home (see separate story), was due to speak to the charity Diabetes UK yesterday (Wednesday).

Baroness [Jane] Campbell, a disabled crossbench MP, said the speaker’s actions made her “uncomfortable” and said that his apparent belief that he was being brave by continuing to work in parliament during the pandemic was “foolish”.

She added: “He is also not showing any support for Vicky Foxcroft, who is doing the right thing by staying away.

“Those of us who would be at risk if we went to Westminster, should be allowed to remotely work – as I am and many others in the House of Lords.

“That is not only possible, it is risk free and focuses the mind.”

A spokesperson for the speaker said: “Mr Speaker has been very honest about his diabetes – that it is managed, that he is fit and well, that he is under 70 and has no other morbidity issues.

“He is a designated key worker who cannot work from home.

“He follows social distancing advice and avoids taking public transport.

“Each person has to make a decision which is right for them based on their own medical advice. He can only speak for his own situation.

“Mr Speaker strongly believes that hybrid proceedings should continue for MPs who are shielding, vulnerable or have caring responsibilities to enable them to take part in Commons proceedings remotely.

“He has been in regular contact with the government in the hope that agreement can be reached on a way forward that is inclusive to all members.”

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

4 June 2020

 

Four key changes to domestic violence bill could make ‘crucial difference’

Campaigners are pushing the government to make key changes to its domestic violence bill so that it provides disabled people with “crucial” new protections from abusive carers and care workers, and new social security rights for survivors of abuse.

They are calling on disabled people to lobby their MPs – and particularly those MPs on the committee currently examining the bill, who begin their work today (Thursday) – to force through these changes to the draft legislation.

They say the domestic abuse bill already contains important measures that could help protect and support disabled people, but they also believe that there are important areas where it could be improved.

The lobbying work is being headed by the London-based user-led organisation Stay Safe East, which works with disabled survivors of domestic and sexual abuse, hate crime and other forms of abuse.

Stay Safe East has also worked closely with the charity SignHealth, the disabled women’s collective Sisters of Frida, the disabled people’s organisations Choice in Hackney and Merton Centre for Independent Living, and the user-led organisation Disabled Survivors Unite.

Many of their concerns have also been backed by a wider alliance of organisations working with survivors of domestic abuse and other violence against women and girls.

Ruth Bashall, chief executive of Stay Safe East, said the changes they were seeking could make a “crucial” difference to the lives of disabled women.

She said there has been far more engagement with women’s organisations and the Home Office than there was six years ago, when the last major piece of domestic violence legislation was being discussed in parliament.

Bashall said: “They are starting to get that the needs of disabled survivors have not been addressed and that they need to start looking at them.

“Part of that is using the bill to address the really, really significant issues around the fact that disabled women in particular are probably three times more likely to be victims of domestic abuse and four times more likely to be victims of sexual violence, in comparison with non-disabled women.

“It is a chance to say that disabled survivors matter and we will do our best to make sure they get an equal outcome.”

Stay Safe East and other user-led organisations are focusing their lobbying efforts on four key amendments that they want the government to make to the bill.

The first is to remove from law the existing “carer’s defence” which allows a family member or partner accused of abuse to claim they were acting in the disabled person’s best interests.

Stay Safe East and its allies say this “reinforces the widely help belief that carers are always benign”, and sends a clear message to the criminal justice system that disabled people are “vulnerable victims” who are “not worthy of protection” in the same way as non-disabled people.

Bashall said: “It’s discrimination and we simply want it abolished.”

Another key measure they want changed is to expand protection for disabled people so that the bill covers abuse not just by family, friends and partners but also paid care workers and personal assistants, and friends and neighbours who carry out unpaid caring duties

Bashall said: “The personal connections you have as disabled people are different.

“If you’re abused by that person, the impact, the way it happens, the means they have of controlling you, what they do, the psychological and long-term impact, is domestic abuse.

“It destroys your sense of self, it stops you trusting people in the same way as if it had been a partner.”

She said this proposed amendment was about ensuring that disabled people who experience domestic abuse get equal treatment.

She added: “If we don’t get that definition, you’re basically saying to disabled victims of paid or unpaid carers: you don’t matter.”

They also want to see the jobseeker’s allowance (JSA) domestic violence “easement” – which allows survivors of domestic abuse on JSA an exemption from job-seeking conditions for up to 13 weeks – to be extended to those who are on or are starting a claim for employment and support allowance (ESA).

Because there is no ESA version of the easement, disabled women can be called for a work capability assessment while they are trying to escape an abusive relationship.

The fourth key amendment they want to see is for domestic abuse that involves disability-related hostility to be prosecuted as both domestic abuse and hate crime.

Stay Safe East says that an “overwhelming majority” of its clients have experienced hostility as part of domestic abuse “because they are disabled people”, for example through denying them access to equipment, manipulating their medication to make their physical or mental health worse, or mocking them or calling them abusive names related to their impairment.

Bashall said she was optimistic that MPs and peers would understand the importance of this and the other amendments that user-led organisations are pushing.

She added: “We would like people to lobby their MPs and talk to members of the House of Lords.

“We are not a token minority, but we need as much support as we can get.”

4 June 2020

 

Airport faces legal action over wheelchair-user twice left ‘distressed and humiliated’

A wheelchair-user has launched a legal action against Manchester Airport after he was twice left feeling “distressed and humiliated” by how he was treated on journeys to and from a family holiday.

Quamer Khaliq, from Ashton-under-Lyne, had to threaten to call the fire brigade after he was left on the aircraft with his 11-year-old daughter for two hours, on their return to Manchester from the US.

While he was waiting for assistance – in growing discomfort and distress – staff were forced to work around him as they cleaned the plane.

After the cleaning staff left, trainee cabin crew arrived for a training exercise while he was still waiting for assistance to leave the plane.

Khaliq was left waiting on both the outward journey from the airport and when he returned to Manchester with his daughter from their trip to Disney World in Orlando, Florida.

He claims the airport breached its duties to provide disabled passengers with assistance under access to air travel regulations.

He is now awaiting a first hearing in the high court for his case against Manchester Airport.

On the outward flight, on 29 May last year, the assistance he had booked was not waiting at the departure gate, and when two members of staff arrived they said they were not trained to transfer him to a manual wheelchair that could be used to take him onto the aircraft.

After waiting another 40 minutes, untrained members of the cabin crew transferred him themselves without using a hoist, a process that caused him “pain, discomfort and embarrassment”.

On his return to Manchester, on 13 June, he was left stranded on the plane with his daughter for two hours.

Even when assistance finally arrived – after he had threatened to call 999 – they had no wheelchair or hoist and he was left for another half an hour.

When they returned with an aisle wheelchair he was again manually transferred into an “aisle” wheelchair inappropriately.

His own electric wheelchair was also badly damaged during the return journey and he has had to borrow an NHS wheelchair which he cannot use outdoors.

Both flights were with Thomas Cook Airlines, which collapsed three months later.

Khaliq’s treatment by Manchester Airport contrasts with how he was treated by Orlando airport, whose staff transferred him to and from his wheelchair using a hoist.

He said: “This trip should have been a special holiday for me and my daughter but was instead overshadowed by the humiliating and distressing way in which I was treated by the airport.

“There should be no excuses for not providing the support and equipment required to meet the needs of disabled passengers.”

His solicitor, Kate Egerton, from Leigh Day, said: “It is not acceptable to leave disabled passengers waiting for hours to embark and disembark aircraft, and to not use trained staff and the appropriate equipment; it is humiliating and unsafe.

“Mr Khaliq argues that the way he was treated was unlawful and he hopes that by bringing this case Manchester Airport will improve their assistance provisions for all disabled passengers.”

Manchester Airport – which is nearly two-thirds owned by Greater Manchester’s 10 local authorities – was warned last year by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) of its continuing concerns about the services and facilities provided to assist disabled passengers.

Although the airport had improved on its rating of “poor” in 2017-18, the CAA warned then that events since the end of March 2019 had “stalled” its progress.

Khaliq’s two flights had taken place on 29 May and 13 June 2019.

In April 2019, the airport had begun using a new provider of assistance services, ABM Aviation, and the CAA reported how – during its first three months – “performance was poor, with high numbers of passengers waiting for unacceptable lengths of time to receive assistance when arriving on inbound flights”.

A Manchester Airport spokesperson said: “We are aware of a claim that has been brought on behalf of Mr Khaliq, which is subject to an ongoing legal process.

“The claim relates to the level of special assistance service that Mr Khaliq received while at the airport, as well as pain and discomfort it is alleged he sustained while being transferred to his aircraft seat by Thomas Cook cabin crew, and damage allegedly caused to his wheelchair during his return journey.

“Airlines, in this case Thomas Cook, are responsible for any items carried in transit.

“It would be inappropriate to comment further on the facts of the case at this stage.

“However, it is always our aim to ensure every passenger receives the best possible service at the airport, and we never like to hear that one of our customers is unhappy with their experience when travelling through Manchester.”

A spokesperson for ABM Aviation said: “Given the legal nature of this case, we are unfortunately not able to give a comment at this time.”

4 June 2020

 

Round-up: Letter to DWP on £20 uprating, ILF survey… and PIP telephone assessments

The government’s own benefits advisers have told ministers that it is “increasingly untenable” for them to refuse to pay those on out-of-work disability benefits the temporary increase of £20 a week being paid to claimants of universal credit.

The increase in the standard allowance of universal credit (UC) – and in working tax credit – was announced on 20 March by the chancellor, as a result of the pandemic crisis, and will last 12 months.

But ministers have insisted they cannot make the same increase quickly or safely to those on employment and support allowance and jobseeker’s allowance.

Now members of the social security advisory committee (SSAC), in a letter to work and pensions secretary Therese Coffey, say they are “of the strong view that it is increasingly untenable for this group of claimants to be excluded and to continue to have a lower level of income” than those receiving UC and working tax credit.

The committee’s interim chair, Liz Sayce, also calls in the letter for changes to housing benefit, the benefit cap, and how the government is communicating changes to social security during the crisis.

But the committee does also praise the “extraordinary” work the government has done to make major changes to the benefits system to “provide immediate financial support to millions of out-of-work, employed and self-employed people who have been impacted by the coronavirus pandemic”.

A DWP spokesperson refused to respond to the committee’s requests, but said in a statement: “We are doing whatever it takes to ensure people are supported through these unprecedented times, including injecting £6.5 billion into the welfare system and rolling out income protection schemes, mortgage holidays and additional support for renters.

“We have experienced a surge in demand since mid-March and universal credit has enabled us to increase payments at pace, while maintaining the stability of the welfare system overall.

“We estimate that 2.5 million households on universal credit will benefit immediately from the £20-a-week increase in the standard allowance.

“We have also increased other entitlements such as local housing allowance, to better support those across all benefits.”

Disabled people in Northern Ireland are being asked to take part in a survey as part of moves to persuade their devolved government to re-open the Independent Living Fund (ILF) for new claimants for the first time in 10 years.

The organisation that runs ILF in Northern Ireland, ILF Scotland, was set to hold four events across the country in March to ask for views on allowing new claimants to apply for support from the fund, which helps more than 430 disabled people with high support needs to live independently in the community.

The events had to be cancelled because of the coronavirus crisis, so it is now carrying out an online survey instead, which it hopes will lead to a formal government consultation later this year.

ILF Scotland wants disabled people, including existing ILF recipients, family, friends, personal assistants, disabled people’s organisations and other interested parties in Northern Ireland to complete the survey before 17 June.

Susan Douglas Scott, chair of ILF Scotland, said they wanted to hear people’s ideas for the future of the Independent Living Fund and particularly about the possibility of reopening the fund in Northern Ireland to new claimants.

The website Benefits and Work has published the second part of its survey of disabled people who have had their personal independence payment assessment carried out over the telephone as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

Concerns raised by those who responded to the survey included not being able to hear the assessor clearly.

Only a small proportion (eight per cent) of the more than 250 people who took part in the survey described the assessor as unfriendly, although some of them used words such as “hostile”, “intimidating”, “insensitive” and “rude” to describe them, while 47 per cent said their assessor was encouraging.

About one in seven said their assessor did not appear to have read in advance the form they had filled in to describe how their impairment affected them.

Other concerns included the failure to make reasonable adjustments for claimants, including those who are deaf or have anxiety.

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

4 June 2020

 

News provided by John Pring at www.disabilitynewsservice.com