Covid-19: Effect on People with Learning Disabilities

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 5:05 pm on 15th December 2020.

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Photo of Olivia Blake Olivia Blake Labour, Sheffield, Hallam 5:05 pm, 15th December 2020

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ghani. I thank my hon. Friend Christian Matheson for securing this important debate, which is well overdue.

I have had many messages from people who have been worried about changes to services during this crisis and about the impact that the crisis has had on their day-to-day living, with many describing it as devastating. I serve on the Public Accounts Committee, and last week we heard from care home witnesses that those with learning disabilities were

“very much ignored at the start of the pandemic.”

We were discussing the provision of personal protective equipment in care settings, but it is fair to say that many people feel that way about the whole pandemic.

Too often, people with learning disabilities have been an afterthought throughout this public health crisis. That is entirely the wrong approach because we know that the health outcomes for those with learning disabilities are poor. While more research into the impact of covid-19 is needed, what we know so far is damning. As has been pointed out, those with learning disabilities have a death rate that is 4.1 times higher than that of the general population, and 30 times higher than for those aged 18 to 34. Access to easy-read information was also raised with me, as were concerns about good public health messaging.

As if those figures were not worrying enough, many disability rights campaigners, including myself, were alarmed at the NICE guidelines for intensive care unit referrals, which seemed to actively discriminate against admitting people with learning disabilities into intensive care or life-saving treatment. I am glad that NICE has updated the guidance, but the episode shines a light on the way people with learning disabilities have been treated throughout, and perhaps before, this crisis.

As the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on special educational needs and disabilities, I have heard first-hand testimony about the huge amount of added pressure on young people and their families throughout the crisis, including the difficulties accessing education online, which my hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester described; access to hydrotherapy disappearing; other therapeutic interventions being withdrawn from schools; and a host of other issues. We will be publishing our report and recommendations early next year, which obviously go broader than learning disabilities. It is clear that, after years of being a Cinderella service, provision for children and young people with learning disabilities is already very stretched. We are badly positioned to support some of the most vulnerable people through this crisis, and that needs to improve.

I am also concerned about the delay in the publication of the SEND review. That is worrying as there is urgent work to be done in that area. The people most affected by covid—those with learning disabilities—should be at the forefront of the Government’s planning and at the forefront of their minds. Time and time again, the people with such needs, who are most affected by the covid outbreak, are given the least thought. That needs to change. While there has been progress with the roll-out of vaccines, people with learning disabilities should rightly be given priority. I see they are on the priority list, but not that high.

Let us end the Cinderella services in education, health and social care, and learn the hard lessons. We have seen some abject failures in that area in recent history. Let us learn from this pandemic, so that people with learning disabilities no longer have to wait to be treated with the dignity and respect that they deserve. Let us also ensure that all our healthcare professionals are adequately trained in this area, so that no one need fear entering health services at the moment.