Disabled people are beginning to raise grave concerns about the potential impact of coronavirus on people with long-term health conditions and high support needs, particularly those who employ their own personal assistants.

The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) published its action plan on dealing with COVID-19 this week, but the document said little about social care.

Health and social care secretary Matt Hancock said: “Protecting the most vulnerable is our absolute priority.”

He added: “We all have a role to play in combatting this threat and I urge everyone to take stock of the simple methods that offer the best protection.

“Right now, this means making sure you are washing your hands properly and regularly and always following the most current public health and travel advice as it develops.”

The government said it was currently focusing on containing the spread of the virus.

But the action plan says that if the virus becomes established, the focus will be on providing “essential services, helping those most at risk to access the right treatment”.

DHSC said yesterday (Wednesday) that it would publish guidance for the care sector “shortly”, but there are concerns that this could focus on the care industry and residential homes rather than disabled people who employ their own personal assistants (PAs).

The Local Government Association said this week that councils were working alongside Public Health England, the NHS and other organisations to “assess risk, provide advice to communities and try to prevent this virus spreading further” and that local plans were “in place for every eventuality, including a pandemic”.

Few if any disabled people’s organisations (DPOs) have spoken out yet about the impact of COVID-19.

But some disabled people and DPOs have begun to express concerns.

Disability Rights UK (DR UK) is one of the first DPOs to speak out.

Kamran Mallick, DR UK’s chief executive, told Disability News Service (DNS) that disabled people should not be seen as “inevitable cannon fodder in the face of COVID-19” when it was those with underlying health conditions who appear to be “bearing the brunt of the worst effects of this illness”.

He said DR UK was seeking evidence that hospitals would be able to cope with “the most vulnerable cases in the event of mass infection”.

He added: “Our lives matter as much as the next person’s.”

Mallick called on the government to make extra funding available in next week’s budget “to allow for the extra social care that would inevitably be needed for disabled people should an epidemic take hold”, in addition to the “desperately needed” funding the social care system already needed.

He also warned that “self-isolation” in the event of infection with the virus was not as easy for many disabled people as it might be for non-disabled people.

He said: “We would ask that those responsible for planning in social care and hospitals understand and provide for the fact that, if self-isolating, not everybody can be alone.”

He said adequate provision would be needed for those who cannot self-isolate alone, including those who need full-time assistance, support with eating, drinking and mobilising.

But he also said that people whose immunity was compromised should already be “well-versed in hygiene routines, including asking people with any symptoms of any virus to stay away, and practising good hand-washing hygiene”.

He said: “As far as we can tell at this stage, the same procedures apply for COVID-19.

“We are advising members to watch out for updates in advice from Public Health England and to act accordingly.”

Mark Williams, co-founder of Bristol Reclaiming Independent Living, said: “As a disabled employer, I am concerned about my staff and their capability of supporting me to carry on living independently.

“It is all very well for the government to tell people self-isolate or work from home, but there is no advice for people in my situation and how it might affect them.

“Even at prime minister’s questions this week, when asked about his social care plans, Boris Johnson talked about elderly people being able to keep their homes – nothing about how it would affect working-age disabled people.

“Therefore, why should he think about how coronavirus might affect us?”

Mel Close, chief executive of Disability Equality (NW), said her organisation had begun to receive calls from disabled people concerned about COVID-19.

She said: “We’re trying to be consistent in reassuring them, and are using the NHS guidance/key messages – which we’ve also circulated to staff.”

Access and inclusion expert Sarah Rennie told DNS she had already taken some precautions.

She said: “I have spinal muscular atrophy, so any sort of flu or pneumonia would be life threatening.

“I have cancelled all face-to-face work for the next month (not great financially!) and my care team are taking all infection control precautions.

“However, if any of my PAs (two of whom are teachers with massive social contact levels) come into contact with the virus, how do we effectively self-isolate?

“My PAs come in and out, changing shifts twice a day. Are they expected to care for me if I develop any symptoms of a virus?

“What an expectation for those who are also caring for older parents and small children.

“I’m also aware that I can’t seem to get advice on the point at which I should be hospitalised.

“I’m a level-headed person, only reading advice from reputable sources, but can’t find much advice for people like me.

“This is very worrying, particularly as I have a responsibility as an employer as well.”

Disabled activist Brian Hilton called for “a thought-through response that protects both residents and staff within care homes and other residential settings.

“Similarly, disabled people who live independently with the support of care staff need some reassurance that support will be available if required.”

He called for a government statement on what “support, contingencies and resources” would be available to disabled people if the situation worsened.

5 March 2020. News provided by John Pring at www.disabilitynewsservice.com



The family of a disabled man who starved to death after his out-of-work disability benefits were wrongly removed have begun a legal action against the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).

They hope the legal action will force DWP to make sweeping improvements to the safeguarding system and prevent other such deaths.

Disability News Service revealed last month that Errol Graham weighed just four-and-a-half stone when his body was found by bailiffs.

Now Alison Turner, the partner of Graham’s son, has warned DWP that she could seek a judicial review, arguing that the decisions it took, as well as its systems, procedures and actions, and subsequent investigations and reviews, were unlawful.

Through lawyers Leigh Day, Turner has told work and pensions secretary Therese Coffey that she has two weeks to produce a “satisfactory” response to her concerns or she will begin a claim for judicial review.

In the “letter before action”, sent to Coffey on Tuesday, Leigh Day say it is “obvious” that terminating the benefits of a “vulnerable” claimant may lead to their death.

They point out that many of DWP’s safeguarding procedures were introduced following the death 20 years ago of Timothy Finn, another disabled man who starved to death after he failed to respond to letters from what was then the Benefits Agency.

The letter to Coffey also points to evidence of other deaths linked to DWP’s actions that has emerged though a five-year investigation by Disability News Service and was drawn together and published late last year.

And it points out that there is now “a significant body of evidence” indicating that withdrawing benefits from “vulnerable claimants with mental and physical health problems” may put their lives at risk and has led to deaths.

Despite this “substantial body of evidence”, the letter says, DWP has failed to introduce an effective way to “identify the risks and flaws in its system, correct them, and prevent further deaths occurring”.

The letter says that DWP continues to make “decisions carrying a risk of death” that are based on “scant and insufficient information”.

Leigh Day’s letter also argues that DWP breached the Equality Act’s duty to make reasonable adjustments for Errol Graham; acted unlawfully under public law; and breached the European Convention on Human Rights, including its duty not to subject him to “cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment”.

As well as seeking compensation, the letter demands that DWP promises to make reasonable adjustments for future benefit claimants.

It also says DWP must tell its decision-makers that benefits should no longer be stopped unless they are sure the claimant did not have a good reason for failing to attend a benefits assessment or reply to a DWP message or letter.

Their decision-makers must also be told to be sure that claimants will not be put at risk if DWP withdraws their benefits.

The letter is also demanding that DWP’s decision-makers should no longer be able to stop someone’s benefits unless the claimant has had the chance to challenge that decision.

The letter claims that, despite repeated concerns being raised, DWP has failed to put in place effective ways to “identify the risks and flaws in its system, correct them, and prevent further deaths occurring”.

And it calls on DWP to answer a series of questions about its ongoing safeguarding review; the operation of its new serious case panel; its internal process review system; and its investigations into Errol Graham’s death.

A DWP spokesperson said: “This is a tragic, complex case and our sympathies are with Mr Graham’s family.

“We take this very seriously and the key issues raised in this case have been referred to the Serious Case Panel.”

Samaritans can be contacted free, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, by calling 116 123 or emailing jo@samaritans.org

27 February 2020. News provided by John Pring at www.disabilitynewsservice.com



Successive chairs of the Conservative party snubbed a request from their own equalities minister, after she asked them to explain how they intended to support more disabled people to become MPs and councillors.

Penny Mordaunt wrote last April to the chair of her party, Brandon Lewis, to “confirm what plans you have in your party to support disabled candidates on a longer-term basis”.

The letter was written because the government had refused to set up a new permanent, long-term fund to meet the extra disability-related costs that many disabled candidates face when seeking elected office as councillors and MPs.

It had scrapped the short-lived Access to Elected Office Fund (AEOF) in 2015 and eventually replaced it three years later with the temporary EnAble fund – which offered only limited support – in response to a legal action taken by a trio of disabled politicians.

In her letter, secured by Disability News Service (DNS) through a freedom of information request, Mordaunt said she believed that “the provision of support for disabled candidates should ultimately be the responsibility of political parties”.

And she asked Lewis to confirm the Conservatives’ long-term plans to support disabled candidates.

She said this would “help us to identify ways in which Government can continue to work with you on this important issue”.

She later received a letter apologising for the delay in replying and insisting that she would receive a response the following week. That letter never arrived.

It now appears that Mordaunt and her successors as minister for women and equalities – Amber Rudd and Liz Truss – made no attempt to follow up on this failure to respond to these questions by their own party.

But the Conservatives were not the only party that Mordaunt wrote to and that failed to answer her questions.

The Liberal Democrats and Greens joined the Tories in producing short holding responses to the letter, explaining that they would reply in detail in due course.

Neither of them ever did.

Labour said it had no record of ever receiving Mordaunt’s letter.

DNS has been able to confirm the lack of response to Mordaunt’s letter through freedom of information requests to the Government Equalities Office (GEO).

Now, more than nine months after Mordaunt’s original letter, a GEO civil servant has told DNS that the three holding responses sent by the Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and Greens were the only ones received by the GEO, now based in the Cabinet Office.

The civil servant added: “Penny Mordaunt MP’s letter was sent to the Chairs of the Labour Party, Conservative Party, Liberal Democrat Party and Green Party in April 2019.

“I have considered the points you make about whether there were any ‘further responses made’ and can confirm that no further correspondence was received by the Cabinet Office.”

DNS reported last month that GEO’s policy on supporting disabled candidates to stand for elected office was in chaos after the government suggested it could offer funding through the EnAble fund to those standing to be police and crime commissioners, but not to those who wanted to become local councillors or MPs.

GEO has been accused of breaching the Equality Act and the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities after refusing to ensure a level playing-field for disabled candidates in December’s general election.

It insisted again that it was the responsibility of political parties to meet the disability-related costs of their candidates, but it is now considering retrospective payments to disabled people who faced extra costs during the general election campaign.

The Conservative party this week refused to comment on its failure to respond to its own minister’s questions.

And a GEO spokesperson refused to say why Penny Mordaunt, Amber Rudd and Liz Truss had not made any effort to secure responses to the letter from the four parties over the last nine months.

But she said: “Financial support for candidates is a matter for political parties and we expect them to take action, but the government is also considering what support it might provide to succeed the interim EnAble fund.

“Political parties were fully informed that the fund was for a limited period, and strongly encouraged to put support for their candidates in place.”

A Labour spokesperson said in a statement: “Labour is absolutely committed to tackling the under-representation of disabled people in politics, to ensure parliament more closely reflects the society we live in.

“One of the specific ways we do this is to offer bursaries to disabled people to help with the costs associated with standing as a parliamentary candidate.”

The Liberal Democrats refused to say why they had not responded to Mordaunt’s letter.

But a Liberal Democrat spokesperson said the party had been responsible for introducing AEOF when in coalition with the Conservatives between 2010 and 2015, and was “deeply disappointed when Penny Mordaunt and the Conservatives subsequently abolished this fund for an inadequate replacement”.

He said the Liberal Democrats were the only party to introduce disabled-only shortlists for selecting candidates to fight some parliamentary seats, and also “provide reasonable adjustments at all stages of the candidate journey to ensure that everyone receives a fair opportunity” as well as “bespoke training and mentoring, provided by experienced staff and members”.

The Green party claimed it did not respond to Mordaunt’s questions because it was not clear which minister was responsible for supporting disabled candidates after the Tories called a leadership election last summer.

A spokesperson said: “When the government informs us who is now leading work to support disabled candidates, we will provide further information to them about the support we offer as a party.”

He said that Green MP Caroline Lucas had continued to press for AEOF to be reopened, as had the party’s general election manifesto.

He added: “We support our local parties through our field staff to anticipate barriers to the participation of disabled members in our activities, and help with removal of those barriers.

“We also help our local parties with reasonable adjustments that any member or candidate may need.”

20 February 2020. News provided by John Pring at www.disabilitynewsservice.com



A disabled student has been left “isolated” and “segregated” by her university’s failure to make her lectures accessible to her.

Sarah-Marie Da Silva, a first-year zoology student and a wheelchair-user, has been trying since her first day on the course to persuade the University of Hull to make changes that would allow her to attend lectures alongside fellow students.

She said the university’s failure to act on her access concerns persuaded her to publish a photograph taken by one of her lecturers last Friday, which showed her being forced to sit alone at the back of a lecture theatre – segregated from fellow students – without a desk to take notes on.

The university later admitted the situation was “not acceptable”.

Now she has warned she will consider legal action against the university for breaching the Equality Act if it fails to take action.

Hull is just the latest university to face complaints from disabled students and staff over the last 18 months.

Last month, Disability News Service (DNS) reported how disabled students had accused University College London of repeatedly failing to make reasonable adjustments and overcharging them for their accessible accommodation.

Last summer, disabled students at London South Bank University said they were taking legal action over claims of disability discrimination.

And in August 2018, DNS reported how the University of Liverpool was facing claims that it forced a disabled member of staff to scour the campus for accessible rooms in which she could deliver her lectures, and even told her that it might be considered “reasonable” for her to go down stairs on her bottom in some circumstances rather than be timetabled into ground floor or fully accessible rooms.

In some lectures, Da Silva has been forced to sit at the back in isolation because of a flight of steps, while in others she has had to sit at the front near the lecturer, separated again from her fellow students.

Sometimes, after arriving to see a set of stairs that prevent her from joining other students, she has left before the lecture begins after finding the access barriers she was facing too distressing.

On other occasions, she has been able to access the front of the lecture theatre, where there has been a moveable desk.

But these desks have a brake on their wheels that she cannot reach because of her impairment, so she can only use the desk if she arrives early enough and the lecturer is able to help her adjust it.

Even if there is a desk and she can use it, she is still left isolated from her fellow students at the front of the class.

She told Disability News Service yesterday (Wednesday): “I have experienced access issues in pretty much every building I’ve been in and some of the buildings are like three years old – I’ve been told this by several staff members.

“I feel segregated from everyone, I’m isolated and I feel abandoned by the university.

“It has severely impacted my mental health. It is degrading and inhumane.”

She has had support since September from lecturers, her tutor, the student union and the university’s disability team, as well as her boyfriend and her university wheelchair basketball team.

But she said the university had “done nothing except move to slightly more accessible lecture theatres and then ignore us”.

She added: “I’ve gone through many departments, lecturers, my tutor and tried to suggest temporary and long-term solutions and nothing has been done.

“I don’t blame my lecturers or the disability team because they’ve been trying their best, but it’s the people higher up who are refusing to do anything, other than move me about.

“I won’t consider legal action until Hull university comes forward with a solution.

“If it’s not good enough then I will consider legal action.”

The university has only commented on the access failure shown in the photograph, and it has refused to comment on the other concerns Da Silva has raised throughout her course.

A spokesperson said: “We are very sorry that this has happened, clearly it is not acceptable.

“We take these matters very seriously and a colleague from our student services team is looking into what has happened now.

“We are committed to working with our students to put in place any additional support or adjustments where needed. Unfortunately, it is clear this hasn’t happened in this case.

“We carry out independent accessibility surveys and audits across our estate and make every effort to ensure the campus is accessible for all.

“As a university we are continuing to invest in and develop our campus and ensuring our buildings are accessible forms a large part of this.

“This particular building is listed and as a result we are unable to make structural alterations to this room.

“A rigorous process is undertaken to ensure rooms allocated for teaching sessions take into account students’ additional requirements but unfortunately it is clear a mistake has happened on this occasion.

“We will immediately look into what happened and ensure that we take necessary steps to make sure this does not happen again.”

But when asked to comment on the other concerns raised by Da Silva, a spokesperson said: “We will continue to work with Sarah-Marie to offer the support that she needs.

“It would be inappropriate for us to comment any further on individual cases.”

13 February 2020. News provided by John Pring at www.disabilitynewsservice.com