The Women and Equalities Committee published its Report Unequal Impact? Coronavirus, disability and access to services: full Report (HC 1050), on 22 December 2020.
The Women and Equalities Committee is appointed by the House of Commons to examine the expenditure, administration and policy of the Government Equalities Office (GEO).
The Report considered disabled people’s access to food shopping, health and social care services and provision for children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities during the pandemic. It also examined the effectiveness and accessibility of the Government’s consultation and communications with disabled people about coronavirus.
This is the introductory section of the report which gives a good flavour of the reports content and findings:
Disabled people who already faced substantial barriers to full participation in society, for example because services were inaccessible or they had additional health, care and support or special educational needs, have suffered a range of profoundly adverse effects from the pandemic, including starkly disproportionate and tragic deaths. There must be a discrete independent inquiry into the causes of adverse outcomes for disabled people, including the decisions and policies of the Government and public authorities.
This should take place as soon as the pandemic is more clearly under control, which we all hope will be in the first half of 2021. The Government’s focus on people defined as “clinically extremely vulnerable” (CEV) to the virus, while rational from a medical perspective, was an inappropriate proxy for the need for support with access to food and had unintended consequences. The Government must better promote the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s new guidance to retailers and the vital importance of reasonable adjustments required under the Equality Act to allow disabled people equal access to food, including in emergency situations.
The Government must use consultation with disabled people on its proposed National Strategy for Disabled People as an opportunity to more effectively adopt a social model of disability in relation to maintaining disabled people’s access to food in this and future crises.
When the Government advises disabled people to shield, we believe it has a duty to ensure that local support arrangements that have replaced the national shielding programme, and the funding in place to support them, are adequate to meet the level of need. It must justify its assertion that “we need to get away from the food parcel model” by publishing an ongoing assessment of disabled people’s needs for help accessing food.
Potentially discriminatory critical care guidelines and doctors’ blanket use of do not attempt resuscitation (DNAR) notices caused disabled people great distress and anxiety and left them feeling their lives were less valued than others’. A robust response is required to restore disabled people’s confidence that their needs are given equal consideration. The Government should consent to the Equality and Human Rights Commission issuing a statutory Code of Practice on the Public Sector Equality Duty.
Pre-existing health inequalities and poor outcomes for people with learning disabilities have been exacerbated by the pandemic. It is vital that their annual NHS health checks are reinstated. The Government should work with the NHS, British Medical Association and people with learning disabilities to ensure full reintroduction of annual health checks across the NHS and increase take up.
The much more widespread adoption of continuous mask wearing has made effective communication impossible for people who lip-read and much more difficult for British Sign Language users and disabled people who are more reliant on facial expressions for communication. The Government’s procurement of 250,000 clear facemasks for health and social care providers is therefore very welcome, but we are not aware of any analysis of the adequacy of 250,000 clear masks to meet current or ongoing needs.
The Government should update us about the distribution of the first 250,000 clear facemasks; its assessment of the level of need across health and social care; and plans for further procurement and distribution. The 2020 Spending Review’s settlement of £300 million in additional grant funding for local authorities’ social care in 2021/22 was disappointing. We agree with the Health and Social Care Committee that an increase in funding for social care, worth around £4 billion per year by 2023/24, will be a necessary first step towards fixing systemic problems in the sector.
The Government must bring forward a social care reform package, which includes the whole sector, in this financial year. It must be wide-ranging, including actions to improve the quality and personalisation of care and support for working age disabled people across all social care settings. The vital importance of the whole social care sector and its workforce has never been so apparent; it must now be valued accordingly.
The pandemic has demonstrated and exacerbated a widely acknowledged pre-existing crisis in provision for children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND). The Government must now prioritise its SEND review and bring forward as a matter of urgency reforms which address fundamental problems of funding, consistency of support, accountability and integration of education, health and care provision.
While the Government’s funding for pupils to catch up on education lost to the pandemic is welcome, the lack of ring-fenced catch-up funding for pupils with SEND in mainstream schools is unacceptable. These pupils have often borne the brunt of the dysfunctional SEND system. Funding should be increased to allow for pupils with SEND in mainstream schools to receive £240 each, ring-fenced for their catch-up support in this academic year. The Government should also procure additional tailored support for pupils with SEND through the National Tutoring Programme.
While Ministers described their engagement with disabled stakeholders during the pandemic as very positive, open and effective, some disabled people and their organisations felt excluded and ignored. The Government must consult widely with
disabled people and their organisations on ways to embed in the forthcoming National Strategy for Disabled People genuinely effective mechanisms by which disabled people can influence policies and practices which directly affect them.
The way the Government has communicated with disabled people during the pandemic has, on occasions, caused confusion and compounded already keenly felt anxiety. Communications have sometimes been poorly thought out, with insufficient
consideration given to the psychological effects on recipients and their families.
Ministers and officials involved in communicating public health messages to disabled people should undergo training in psychologically informed communications which take fully into account and empathise with disabled people’s lived experiences.
The Government has been far too slow to address concerns about inaccessible communications during the pandemic, notably about the lack of British Sign Language (BSL) interpretation of government television briefings. Accessibility should have been baked in from the start. The Government should fully implement the accessible communications “shopping list” put forward by disability charities.
The Accessible Information Standard should be extended to cover public health messages from government departments.
The accessibility of our own proceedings fell short of the good example we should set. The Liaison Committee of the House of Commons should review the adequacy of funding, technical capabilities and expertise available to support live BSL interpretation and subtitles of Select Committee oral evidence sessions. The House of Commons Commission should make it an objective to ensure that a greater proportion of the coverage of the House is fully accessible to Deaf people via the provision of live BSL interpretation and subtitles.
The Government’s response to the Report has also been published – Read It Here