UK government’s policies lead to horrific COVID-19 death rates among disabled people

The Conservative government’s criminal indifference to the lives of some of the most vulnerable people in society has become ever more blatant as the pandemic crisis has unfolded. Earlier this month, the Mencap charity reported that people with learning disabilities were being told in January that they would not be resuscitated if they fell gravely ill with COVID-19.

Edel Harris, Mencap’s chief executive, told the Guardian, “Throughout the pandemic many people with a learning disability have faced shocking discrimination and obstacles to accessing healthcare, with inappropriate Do Not Attempt Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation (DNACPR or DNAR) notices put on their files and cuts made to their social care support.

“It’s unacceptable that within a group of people hit so hard by the pandemic, and who even before Covid died on average over 20 years younger than the general population, many are left feeling scared and wondering why they have been left out.”

A support worker, who works with people with learning disabilities, told the World Socialist Web Site, “They should have a chance for life like anybody else. It is outrageous to have DNAR forms in these people’s files without taking into account their choices, wishes and beliefs. We managed to get some of these notices reversed last year.”

Mencap’s warning came two days after the UK’s Office for National Statistics (ONS) reported that six in 10 of those killed by COVID-19 between January and November last year were disabled, despite making up just 17 percent of the study population. According to the ONS, the risk of death involving COVID-19 was 3.7 times higher for men and women with a medically diagnosed learning disability than for the general population.

For the disabled in general, including physical disability, the rate was 3.5 times higher for more-disabled women—defined by someone having their daily activities “limited a lot” by their health—and 3.1 times for more-disabled men. The risk for less-disabled women was two times greater and 1.9 times greater for less-disabled men.

Last November, Public Health England (PHE) reported that the COVID-19 death rate for disabled young people, aged 18-34, was 30 times higher than the rate for people in the same age group without disabilities.

Reports of the widespread placing of DNACPR notices on disabled people caused an outcry last year. Amnesty International condemned the practice in a scathing report, “As if expendable: The UK government’s failure to protect older people in care homes during the Covid-19 pandemic”. The government was forced to sanction a review of the issue through the Care Quality Commission (CQC).

The WSWS commented last June, “The COVID-19 death rate among disabled people is a result of deliberate policies pursued by the British ruling class. A barely concealed agenda of social euthanasia has found expression in numerous medical guidance documents published during the pandemic, which suggest that coronavirus patients can be denied or deprioritised for medical care solely on the basis of their age or existing mental or physical disabilities.”

In its interim report last November, the CQC stated, “In their interviews with relatives, care home managers, advocacy organisations and legal representatives, Amnesty found examples of the inappropriate or unlawful use of DNACPR forms—including blanket DNACPR, their inappropriate individual use and recommendations for use—by GPs, clinical commissioning groups (CCGs), hospitals and care homes. They also found that staff incorrectly interpreting DNACPR prevented people getting access to hospital care and treatment. Amnesty also highlighted that health and social care staff reported pressure during the pandemic to put DNACPRs in place without consultation.”

The CQC acknowledged that the inappropriate placing of these notices had caused potentially unnecessary deaths. It is to publish its final report next month.

Appallingly high death rates among disabled people are the direct consequence of the government’s herd immunity strategy, described as “social murder” in the British Medical Journal. The policy was bluntly summed up at the start of the pandemic by the reported words of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s advisor Dominic Cummings—“herd immunity, protect the economy, and if that means some pensioners die, too bad.”

Around the same time, columnist Jeremy Warner wrote in the Telegraph, “From an entirely disinterested economic perspective, the COVID-19 might even prove mildly beneficial in the long-term by disproportionately culling elderly dependents.”

The Tory government then discharged thousands of elderly hospital patients to nursing and care homes without carrying out a COVID-19 test. This led to massive outbreaks in care homes, causing tens of thousands of unnecessary deaths, accounting for a third of all COVID-19 fatalities during the first wave of the pandemic.

Disabled people have suffered the same brutal disregard for life, left with woefully inadequate support throughout the pandemic by a ruling class which considers them a drain on profits. Last November, disability equality charity Scope reported that one in five disabled people had their request to work from home, be furloughed or redeployed during the pandemic rejected. The government responded by shrugging its shoulders and saying it was the employers’ decision to make.

This month, Scope reported that disabled people had been “cut off” from support and that their mental and physical health was “unravelling.” Some 36 percent of disabled people surveyed reported that their health had been impaired by problems accessing food during the pandemic.

Another study this month, by Inclusion London, found that many disabled people “have experienced reduced support due to high levels of support staff sickness, cuts to care packages, and increases in social care charges.” Eighty-one percent reported problems accessing healthcare, and 36 percent problems accessing the community “due to changes in the external environment, like streetscapes and the majority of services and support having moved online.” These difficulties come on top of the constant cuts in welfare support for many disabled, seriously ill people, leading to numerous deaths.

Speaking to the WSWS, Simone Aspis, the director of disability charity Changing Perspectives, denounced the governments eugenicist agenda.

“It’s just absolutely outrageous that anybody could think about putting do not resuscitate notices in people’s files. Particularly, now, there are treatments available for people with Covid-19. Disabled people must have equal rights access to that. Nobody should be deciding who should get care depending on their impairment.”

“This is an opportunity for the government to use the herd immunity policy as a new form of eugenics for the Covid-19 situation. There just seems to be more and more pressure on disabled people who are not productive, who are not economically viable.”

The calculated abandonment of the disabled has continued with the vaccine rollout.

According to the government’s Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, people with a “severe or profound learning disability” are in priority group six of ten for receiving the vaccine, except people with Down’s Syndrome, who are in priority group four. There is no special priority for people with a learning disability not considered “severe or profound” or for people with disabilities living in specialist care homes.

Last week, BBC Radio 2 presenter Jo Whiley pulled out of her usual radio show when her sister, Frances, who has a learning disability, was taken to hospital after becoming seriously ill from COVID-19 after an outbreak at her care home in Nottinghamshire.

Hours before, Whiley, 55, had revealed that she had been offered a vaccine before her sister, possibly due to being deemed her carer. She told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that Frances “is in tier 6 [of priority for the vaccine] but she also has quite bad diabetes, which in my understanding puts her in tier four because she has an underlying health condition, so I would have thought that she would have been vaccinated, but that hasn’t happened.”

Whiley continued, “This happens so often—people with learning disabilities are neglected, they haven’t got a voice.”

Frances Whiley was only offered a vaccine on Saturday. Jo said on Sunday, “[My] mum got a message to say that she [Frances] could get vaccinated, but it's too late, she's fighting for her life in hospital. It couldn't be crueller."

For further information visit NHS FightBack