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Women and Equalities Select Committee: pandemic has had “profoundly adverse effects” on disabled people’s access to services

22 December 2020

Disabled people have suffered a range of profoundly adverse effects from the pandemic, including starkly disproportionate deaths, says a report published today by the Women and Equalities Committee. The report calls for an independent inquiry into the causes of adverse outcomes for disabled people, including the decisions and policies of the Government and public authorities, to take place as soon as the pandemic is more clearly under control.

Committee Chair Caroline Nokes said

“Disabled people who already faced substantial barriers to equal participation in society have suffered a range of profoundly adverse effects. They have faced problems with unequal access to food, and potentially discriminatory practices in health and social care services. Existing systemic problems in education for children and young people with special educational needs have worsened. The Government has been far too slow to address concerns about engagement and communications: we need genuinely effective mechanisms by which disabled people can influence policies and practices which affect them, and ensure that hard-won rights and equalities are not eroded. Our inquiry heard extensive evidence from disabled people of the profoundly unequal adverse effects: our report makes the case for an independent inquiry into the causes.”

Key findings and recommendations include:

Equal access to food The Government’s focus on people who are “Clinically Extremely Vulnerable” to the virus, while rational from a medical perpective, was an inappropriate proxy for the need for support with access to food and had unintended consequences. The report calls on the Government to:

  • 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;
  • use consultation 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;
  • ensure that local support arrangements replacing the national shielding programme are adequate, and must support its assertion that “we need to get away from the food parcel model” with an ongoing assessment of need.

Health and social care

Potentially discriminatory critical care guidelines and doctors’ blanket use of do not attempt resuscitation (DNAR) notices caused disabled people great distress and anxiety, leaving them feeling that their lives were less valued than others. A robust response is needed to restore disabled people’s confidence that their rights and 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.

  • the Government should work with the BMA, NHS and people with learning disabilities to ensure full reintroduction of annual health checks across the NHS and increase take up.
  • the widespread adoption of continuous mask wearing has made effective communication impossible for people who lip read, and much more difficult for BSL users and disabled people who are more reliant on facial expression for communication.
  • the Committee welcomes the procurement of 250,000 clear facemasks for health and social care providers, but we are not aware of any analysis of whether this is adequate. The Government must provide an update on distribution of these, 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 an additional £300 million for local authorities’ social care in 2021/22 was disappointing.

  • the Committee agrees with the Health and Social Care Committee that an increase of around £4 billion per year by 2023/24 will be a necessary first step towards fixing systemic problems. It must be wide ranging, and include actions to improve the quality and personalisation of care and support for working age disabled people across all social care settings.

The existing crisis in provision for children and young people with special educational needs (SEND) had been exacerbated by the pandemic.

  • the Government must now prioritise its SEND review and urgently bring forward reforms which address fundamental problems of funding, consistency of support, accountability and integration of education, health and social care provision. The lack of ring-fenced catch-up funding for pupils with SEND is unacceptable: pupils in mainstream schools should each receive £240, and the Government should procure additional tailored support through the National Tutoring Programme.

Communications and engagement Although the Government described its engagement with disabled people as very positive, open and effective, the Committee heard a very different perspective from some disabled people and their organisations, who took the view that they had been excluded and ignored.

  • the Government must consult widely on ways to embed in the forthcoming National Strategy genuinely effective mechanisms for disabled people to influence policies and practices which directly affect them.

Government communications with disabled people have caused confusion and anxiety, and have often been poorly thought out.

  • Ministers and officials 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 the concerns about the lack of BSL interpretation of its televised 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;

Finally, the accessibility of the Committee’s own proceedings fell short of the good example we should set.

  • the Liaison Committee of the House of Commons (the committee of all the select committee Chairs) should review the adequacy of funding, technical capabilities and expertise available to support live BSL interpretation and subtitles of Select Committee evidence sessions. The House of Commons Commission should ensure that a greater proportion of coverage of business is fully accessible to Deaf people via the provision of live BSL interpretation and subtitles.

Women and Equalities Committee Members

Caroline Nokes (Chair) C

Sara Britcliffe C

Theo Clarke C

Elliot Colburn C

Angela Crawley SNP

Alex Davies-Jones L

Peter Gibson C

Kim Johnson L

Kate Osborne L

Bell Ribeiro-Addy L

Nicola Richards C

Read the Report: Unequal Impact? Coronavirus, disability and access to services: full Report

Easy Read: Unequal impact? Coronavirus, disability and access to services: full Report

Watch a British Sign Language explainer video for the Unequal impact? Coronavirus, disability and access to services: full Report

Find out more about the inquiry: Unequal impact? Coronavirus, disability and access to services

About the Women and Equalities Committee