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A leading disabled Baptist minister fears that many disabled people could be left to starve to death because of the failure of the government and supermarkets to ensure they have a way to buy food during the coronavirus crisis.
The Rev Glen Graham has launched a petition with his wife Rowan to highlight their concerns and persuade the government and retailers to take urgent action.
Graham is blind, while his wife has only limited sight and several long-term health conditions, and they warn in their petition that many disabled people have been forgotten in the government’s emergency COVID-19 measures.
Last week, the government announced that 1.5 million disabled people had been categorised as “extremely vulnerable” to the virus and will receive regular deliveries of basic groceries if they do not have their own support network of friends and family.
Depending on demand, hundreds of thousands of boxes could be delivered each week, the government said this week.
The list includes those with severe respiratory conditions, many people on immunosuppression therapies, and those with certain cancers.
But supermarkets are being allowed to use the government database to prioritise their own home deliveries – although it is not yet clear how many supermarkets are doing so – and many disabled customers are being told they will only be considered for a delivery if they are on this restricted list.
This could leave millions of disabled people who cannot safely shop independently, or in many cases cannot even leave their homes, and who therefore have been left without a way to buy food.
Increasing concerns have been raised by the Grahams and other disabled people who say it is now impossible for them to order food online, because all the delivery slots are permanently booked.
Graham is minister at a Devon Baptist church and chair of the Churches for All network of disability-related Christian organisations, but is not speaking on their behalf.
He told Disability News Service: “I fear that people will be forgotten about. People could go hungry. People could starve to death.
“If I was a government person, I wouldn’t want that on my conscience.”
Many of those responding to the petition have raised fears for their own safety.
One said: “I am registered blind and I am not classed as vulnerable. There are no online delivery slots for weeks and I need help to do my shopping.
“I can’t go to the supermarket as I have no transportation and couldn’t carry bags on the bus even if one was running at regular intervals. I am stuck without food for myself and my dog and cats.”
Another said: “Can’t get any shopping online can’t go out it’s like we have been left to starve at home forgotten about.”
A third petition supporter said: “I am a totally blind mum of three children, working full time, but I cannot book any supermarket slot.
“I believe when I go out and try to go shopping that exposes me to the risk of falling ill yet somehow I have to feed our family.”
Graham, who advises the Baptist Church on disability issues, said: “We could cope better if we could make sure of the [delivery] service that has helped us all along.
“Yet again our choices are being limited. Most of the public can choose when to go shopping.
“At the moment, all we can choose to do is hope for the benevolence of someone else if they are free and able. That’s a very risky business.
“It does demoralise you, because the independence you have is locked down with you in the lockdown.”
The Grahams live in the Exeter area and managed just before the crisis worsened last month to book a delivery of groceries, which was delivered on Monday this week, but they have been unable to find any other delivery slots.
They believe they will now have to continue to rely on the kindness of friends who have been delivering fresh food to them.
Rowan Graham said: “We have friends who are leaving perishables for us and also helping out the elderly people in their own villages as well, but how long will they be able to keep that going?”
She said that she and her husband had gone overnight from being independent to being “extremely vulnerable” because of the loss of their ability to book food deliveries online.
She said: “The government has made us extremely vulnerable. I am trying not to be concerned about it but 95 per cent of our shopping has always been done online and the other five per cent by our cleaner.
“People will starve if they are not already doing so. They will starve to death.”
She said some of the stories from disabled people who have already signed their petition were “heart-breaking”.
She called on the government and retailers to provide more delivery slots to disabled people not in the “extremely vulnerable” group.
Her husband said this would “solve a whole load of problems” and would ensure both “safety” and “empowerment” for disabled people.
He said: “We are hearing all this stuff about ‘we are in it together’, but unless there is a widening of that group, we are not in it together. It simply isn’t true.”
*Sources of information and support during the coronavirus pandemic include the following:
2 April 2020. News provided by John Pring at www.disabilitynewsservice.com.
The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has halted all face-to-face assessments for sickness and disability benefits for the next three months, in a “precautionary” measure it says will protect disabled people from unnecessary risk of exposure to coronavirus.
The move will affect those claiming personal independence payment (PIP) and employment and support allowance (ESA), and some claimants of universal credit (UC), as well as recipients of industrial injuries disablement benefit.
It applies to those being reassessed as well as new claimants.
Those with a face-to-face assessment scheduled do not now need to attend and will be contacted to discuss alternative arrangements, which could involve either telephone or paper-based assessments.
Claimants do not need to take any action themselves until they are contacted by DWP.
Among other measures taken by DWP, people who need to claim ESA or UC because of coronavirus will not be required to produce a fit note.
And claimants of out-of-work benefits who tell DWP “in good time” that they are staying at home or have been diagnosed with COVID-19 will not be sanctioned, ministers confirmed.
Justin Tomlinson, the minister for disabled people, will be among ministers and government officials facing questions suggested by members of the public, at a Commons evidence session on Wednesday (25 March).
The Commons petitions committee has organised the session after emailing more than one million people who have previously signed parliamentary petitions about coronavirus to ask them for questions they would like to put to the government about its strategy for dealing with the virus.
The committee received an “unprecedented” 45,000 questions as a result of its appeal.
Among those answering questions will be Dr Jenny Harries, deputy chief medical officer for England; Nick Gibb, the minister for school standards; and Tomlinson.
Catherine McKinnell, chair of the petitions committee, said: “The impact of this virus – both in the UK and globally – cannot be underestimated, and we will continue to hold this government to account on behalf of petitioners to ensure it is effective in responding to the coronavirus and the impact it will have on the lives of every one of us.”
Meanwhile, the Care Quality Commission (CQC) has halted routine inspections of health and social care services during the COVID-19 pandemic.
During the pandemic, it said, its primary objective will be supporting service-providers to keep people safe “during a period of unprecedented pressure on the health and care system”.
Ian Trenholm, CQC’s chief executive, said: “It may still be necessary to use our inspection powers in a very small number of cases when there is clear evidence of harm, such as allegations of abuse.
“In adult social care, our inspectors will also be acting as a support for registered managers, providing advice and guidance throughout this period in the absence of a single national body equivalent to NHS England.
“We are talking to social care providers about how to most effectively collect information from them to ensure that the government has a clear picture of the impact that COVID-19 is having on the sector.”
Meanwhile, a growing number of conferences and other events that were due to take place in the coming months have been postponed or cancelled as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
Among them is the TUC Disabled Workers’ Conference, which was due to take place in Bournemouth in May. It is not yet known whether it will be postponed, cancelled, or held at some point in a different format.
The Reclaiming Our Futures Alliance (ROFA) national conference, which had been due to take place in Manchester on 22 April, will no longer go ahead as planned.
ROFA is considering holding at least part of the event remotely to allow disabled activists and disabled people’s organisations to engage in post-election campaign planning.
Inclusion London has postponed all its face-to-face training and events that were due to take place between 18 March and the end of June, although some events and training will now take place online.
And four consultation events that were set to hear disabled people’s views on proposals to reopen the Independent Living Fund to new claimants in Northern Ireland have been postponed until later in the year.
*Sources of information and support during the coronavirus pandemic include the following:
19 March 2020. News provided by John Pring at www.disabilitynewsservice.com
Ministers are poised to hand more than a billion pounds to discredited private sector outsourcing giants so they can continue to provide disability benefit assessments for another three years.
The plans will apparently see a huge rise in spending on the discredited personal independence payment (PIP) assessment process.
The existing contracts with Atos and Capita to carry out PIP assessments are due to run out at the end of July 2021.
Although it is not certain that the two companies will bid for, and secure, the new contracts, they are in a strong position to do so, despite their poor track record since they began delivering PIP assessments for DWP in 2013.
Ministers made it clear last week that the new contracts would last just three years, with the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) planning to develop a new system for delivering all disability-related assessments through a single digital platform.
New providers could be unwilling to bid to take on such high-profile and troubled contracts for just three years before a major shake-up which will lead to all assessments being carried out by a single organisation, with the possibility of DWP even taking the contracts in-house.
Disability News Service (DNS) has seen Prior Information Notices (PIN) issued by DWP last week, which provide detail on the imminent tendering process for contracts to provide both the PIP assessment and work capability assessments (WCAs) for three years from August 2021.
The WCA is currently provided by another discredited outsourcing giant, the US-based Maximus.
Although the documents show that the cost of the WCA contract has also increased, the PIN for the PIP assessments contract suggests ministers are budgeting for a much steeper rise in costs.
In 2016-17, DWP handed £255 million to Atos and Capita to carry out PIP assessments across England, Scotland and Wales.
But the Scottish government is set to take on responsibility for all PIP assessments in Scotland from next month.
The PIN says that the new contract is worth an estimated £1.06 billion over three years, to provide PIP assessments only in England and Wales.
This suggests payments of about £353 million a year* to provide PIP assessments in England and Wales only in 2021-22, 2022-23 and 2023-24, compared with £255 million in 2016-17 to provide assessments across England, Wales and Scotland.
DNS spent months investigating allegations of dishonesty by PIP assessors in late 2016 and throughout 2017, hearing eventually from more than 250 disabled people in less than a year about how they had been unfairly deprived of their benefits, with such cases still continuing to come in more than three years after that investigation began.
Last September, DNS revealed that PIP claimants were now almost twice as likely to win their tribunal appeal than DLA claimants were a decade ago.
The other PIN says the contract to provide WCAs for three years from August 2021 will be worth an estimated £500 million* over three years.
This is likely to be offered in just one contract, and will cover England, Scotland and Wales.
Maximus, which is in prime position to win the new contract, is already set to receive an estimated £227 million for the 18 months from February this year to July next year, at about £12.5 million a month, compared with about £14 million a month for the three years from August 2021 that will be offered through the new contract.
Maximus has itself been at the centre of repeated claims of poor performance, allegations of falsifying the results of WCAs and unsafe practices during assessments, and even links to the deaths of claimants, since it took over the WCA contract from Atos in 2015.
DWP refused to explain how it justified such a significant increase in the value of the new PIP assessment contracts, after being asked to comment by DNS.
*These figures are estimates because some of the payments depend on how many assessments the contractor is asked to carry out
12 March 2020. News provided by John Pring at www.disabilitynewsservice.com