Erosion of the rights of the less-abled: incompetence or social Darwinism?

“As a father of a disabled child, and the patron of the Disability Law Service, I’ve seen legal advice that suggests his [Johnson’s] government broke international law in how the Coronavirus Act reduced the rights of disabled people,” Liberal Democrat leader Sir Ed Davey told Prime Minister (PM) Boris Johnson in the House of Commons last week. Rather subdued, the PM announced he was not aware of that allegation.

Unaware Boris Johnson might have been, but he could not have been surprised. After all, in May 2019 the United Nations (UN) had accused the UK government of breaching its Human Rights obligations in respect of the poor in general (the right to adequate food) and the less-abled in particular, with violations of articles 19 (independent living), 27 (work and employment) and 28 (adequate standard of living and social protection) of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD). These weren’t “very specific and limited” breaches that could be fudged either. A spokeswoman for the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities said, “The committee can confirm that some violations were grave, some others were systematic and some were both: grave and systematic.”

In what has now become a recognisable pattern of behaviour, the government refused to accept the findings in fact and blathered on about being world-leading in less-abled rights and equality. When will this government learn that accepting and addressing flaws in a system, process or procedure does not in any way undermine or undervalue the achievements in that same system, process or procedure? On the contrary, it helps to improve it. Isn’t continual improvement something our government should aim for?

Buried in the 348-page Coronavirus Act 2020 is a clause that removes local councils’ duties to provide care for less-abled people, unless it is a breach of their human rights. This would support the thesis that the erosion of rights is deliberate and not merely an unintended consequence. In practice, this clause meant local councils could pare back the support offered to a bare minimum, at the very moment when shielding and lockdown regulations meant less-abled people and their families needed that support more than ever. Indeed, this is what happened. “Research by the Disabled Children’s Partnership shows that three-quarters of families with disabled children had their care support stopped during lockdown,” Davey informed Johnson. It wasn’t just less-abled children who suffered.

60% of those who succumbed to the virus had a disability that impacted their life, a truly shocking statistic. What of the vast majority of less-abled people who did not contract the virus —what was their lived experience of the COVID19 pandemic? At a Labour Conference event entitled “The Impact of COVID-19: No Turning Back the Clock on Equality” this weekend, co-Chair of Disability Labour Fran Springfield spoke about this. Perhaps the most chilling example was the blanket “Do Not Resuscitate” (DNR) declaration many less-abled people were compelled to sign. There is no reason why, say, an Autistic person without any pre-existing medical conditions should not be resuscitated. (Many elderly abled people were also cajoled into signing DNR declarations.) Small wonder that 35 per cent of less-abled people reported suffering psychologically during lockdown, with little or no mental health help.

Despite all the measures put in place at community level, many on a voluntary basis, 60 per cent experienced difficulty accessing food and medicine. They may have received food packages, but sometimes those packages contained items less-abled people couldn’t manage, like cans of food they couldn’t open due to their disability. There weren’t enough online shopping slots reserved for the less-abled, and many found that when they went to shops in person, they weren’t allowed to be accompanied by a carer and so were physically unable to shop. Many are still having trouble shopping, even now lockdown has been eased. With regards to medicines, the main problem appears to have been one of substitution where shortages occurred. Substitutes aren’t always perfect replications, and even a tiny difference in the underlying formula can result in major side-effects. Ms Springfield said that in her own case she had found that generic versions of the medicines she takes are not as effective, and even cause allergies.

Half of less-abled people found government information either inaccessible, or confusing, or both. One consequence of this is that many missed out on the £20 upgrade to Universal Credit during lockdown. The furore over “to wear a mask or to not wear a mask”, with the government seemingly swapping and changing its mind with the weather, left less-abled people fearful of coming into contact with others not masking. This meant personal protective equipment (PPE) was another area of concern, as 40% of carers reported difficulty in obtaining it.

Looking to the future Ms Springfield voiced her worry that in any mass redundancies due to the ending of the furlough scheme, less-abled people would be the first to go. She also pointed out that the pandemic had created a new class of less-abled, which the government has not as yet given due recognition to: long-COVID sufferers. A recent study in Dublin found that 52 per cent of patients continued to experience symptoms 10 weeks on, including fatigue, breathing difficulties and brain fog. To date, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has not permitted long-COVID sufferers to access benefits.

Ms Springfield’s four key asks of government are:

  • Repeal legislation that suspends social care;
  • Give less-abled people a voice in future decision-making;
  • Strengthen the Equalities Act with both investigatory and regulatory powers, and
  • Write the UN Convention on the Rights of Disabled Persons into UK Law.

On the first item, Ms Springfield will find allies on the Opposition benches concerned by the obscene amount of public money being bunged to government cronies for public contracts without tender or rigorous due diligence processes. Some recipients are new start-ups with no track record and/or no assets à la ferryless ferry company Seaborne Freight made famous by Chris Grayling’s hapless adventures in procurement. Indeed, she will also find allies on the government’s backbenches. Tory MPs are becoming increasingly vociferous about the executive’s exercise of the over-weening powers of the Coronavirus Act 2020, impinging upon the liberties of all British citizens without prior scrutiny by parliament.

There was a huge mobilisation of willing volunteers during lockdown. Until Dominic Cummings’s Durham flit and Castle Barnard jaunt, community spirit was flourishing. It may be difficult to recapture that a second time, given the public’s disappointment and lingering resentment at government’s cynical adherence to “one rule for us, another for the plebs.” Yet if we are to go into another lockdown, as the PM has heavily hinted this weekend, then we must not be afraid, or too proud, to admit that we got some things wrong. Learning the lessons from the first experience of lockdown is crucial. That way we can ensure our fellow less-abled citizens are better served than last time.