Are we finally getting answers about why disabled people felt forgotten during the pandemic?

Steven, who works on our campaigns, explores what we’ve learnt from the early stages of the Covid-19 public inquiry.

The Covid-19 pandemic made existing inequalities worse for disabled people and created new ones. From problems accessing vital medical supplies and food, being able to access public health information in our preferred way or becoming lonelier and more isolated, the impact of Covid-19 has been immense.

Throughout, disabled people have been telling us that they feel they’ve been ignored and that their needs haven’t been considered. Much of the evidence we’ve heard so far suggests they are right.

That’s why our campaign called for the voices and experiences of disabled people to be heard as part of the public inquiry that launched last year to examine the UK’s response to the pandemic.

Since June this year, we’ve heard evidence across the first two subject areas, or ‘modules’, the inquiry will explore. These look at how prepared the UK was for a pandemic like Covid-19 and the way decisions about the pandemic were taken.

The inquiry has heard from many witnesses and sifted through thousands of pages of written evidence so far. A few themes have already emerged that relate to the experiences of disabled people.

The needs of disabled people weren’t properly considered by decision makers

At the height of our campaign for disabled people to be at the heart of the Covid inquiry, one of the things that really struck me from our research was how disabled people felt forgotten and ignored by government during the crisis.

Over half (53%) of disabled people felt their views were ignored during the pandemic, with 57% feeling that they didn’t receive enough support. Some of the evidence we’ve heard so far suggests that the disproportionate impact of Covid-19 on disabled people was not fully considered or prioritised.

We heard particularly powerful evidence from Thomas Shakespeare, a leading disability researcher from the London School of Hygiene and tropical medicine who described disabled people as ‘an afterthought’ when it came to pandemic planning and actions taken. This was further backed up by evidence given to the inquiry from Disability Rights UK and other leading disabled people’s organisations.

Despite disabled people making up 20% of the UK population, there was a lack of pre pandemic planning made worse by a lack of coordinated planning during the pandemic which was described as ‘utterly breath-taking’.

In my view, a factor that seriously hindered effective decision making in respect of disabled people was that the government failed to engage with disabled people and disabled people’s organisations during the pandemic. Giving evidence, the CEO of Disability Rights UK spoke about the UK government’s utter failure to engage with disabled people and organisations.

‘Obvious to everyone, but the responsibility of no-one’

Over the last few months, politicians giving evidence have revealed that the government was aware of the disproportionate risks faced by disabled people during the pandemic. Yet no-one had – or seemed to want to take – responsibility for taking action to protect disabled people.

Politicians, including former minister for disabled people Justin Tomlinson and former Prime Minister Boris Johnson, testified that the risks to disabled people were so obvious that someone was no doubt working on them. There simply had to be someone, somewhere, doing it. And yet, no-one seemed to be able to point to this elusive person or team.

During his closing statement to the inquiry in December, the lawyer giving evidence on behalf of various disabled people’s organisations described this phenomenon as ‘obvious to everyone, but the responsibility of no-one’.

It seems there was a general lack of concern and consideration for those most vulnerable to inequalities caused by the pandemic. It has been alleged that Boris Johnson asked why damage was being inflicted on the economy for people who would ‘die anyway’.

Inaccessible communications

The pandemic was a time of information. Information delivered through covid briefings or letters sent to clinically extremely vulnerable people. It was a scary time and we were all trying to get as much information as we could. But what if this information wasn’t accessible to everyone?

This was the case for many disabled people whom, for example, received letters in formats they couldn’t read or weren’t provided with British Sign Language interpretation for national briefings and announcements.

Speaking to the inquiry, the then minister for disabled people did acknowledge some areas where the government could have done more to support disabled people. He gave the example that it took a long time for BSL interpreters to be at Covid-19 daily briefings, something he described as ‘extremely frustrating’.

It took the incredible campaigning of a number of deaf individuals through the Where Is The Interpreter? campaign, culminating in a court victory to prove that the government had discriminated against the claimants by not providing BSL interpretation.

No-one would suggest that plotting a path through the pandemic was easy for the government, but the evidence heard across the first two modules of the inquiry does suggest that, as many disabled people thought at the time, our needs were de-prioritised. To me, it seems clear that more needs to be done to ensure the needs of disabled people are better considered for future health emergencies and that more robust protections are put in place.

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A version of this post first appeared in Big Issue.