Covid-19: Effect on People with Learning Disabilities

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 5:14 pm on 15th December 2020.

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Photo of Lisa Cameron Lisa Cameron Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Mental Health) 5:14 pm, 15th December 2020

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ghani. I start by thanking Christian Matheson, who has provided such a detailed overview of the issues that need to be addressed. I thank him for that, not just as a Member who is speaking today, but as the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on disability. It is wonderful that he has secured this debate, and that he has spoken so eloquently and in such an important manner to raise the issues that the Government should be addressing.

I also thank all hon. Members who have taken part in the debate. We have heard excellent speeches, touching on education, employment and issues related to autism spectrum disorder. We also heard from Jamie Stone, who spoke about the impact of the internet and technology and the importance of access, as well as about family issues. As he highlighted, it is very important that we should not think of helping or assisting people with disabilities as something that is removed from our own lives, because these issues will touch our families at some point.

Great thanks have to go to the staff—to the teachers and care staff—who have worked with people with disabilities throughout the pandemic in our NHS and care settings, who have pulled out all the stops and shown absolute determination and dedication in their role, as well as to the charities, including Mencap, Sense and Scope, to name just a few.

In terms of the immediate consequences of the pandemic that need urgent attention, there are a number of pressing concerns, the first of which is access to healthcare under the Equality Act 2010. People with learning disabilities are, of course, entitled to reasonable adjustments when admitted to hospital. Although those adjustments have not been officially revoked under the Coronavirus Act 2020, one in four people surveyed by Mencap who work as nurses in the learning disability sector said that they had seen instances in which people with a learning disability were not allowed to be accompanied by a family member, carer or supporter in hospital due to covid restrictions.

The Scottish Government have been addressing that issue: people with learning disabilities are excluded from the no visitors policy, and a guide for clinicians working in hospitals has been provided, which I think has been very helpful in terms of shared practice. A top priority for future guidance must be to ensure that those with learning disabilities are allowed to be accompanied in ambulances, to hospital, for check-ups and so on, and to bring someone with them to help with communication and their healthcare needs.

Although the move towards remote consultation to treat many conditions during the pandemic has been welcomed—indeed, it has been a necessity—there is concern, as we have heard, that people with learning disabilities often do not have access to technology or find it more difficult to use, and many do not have the adaptations in technology that enable them to access those consultations in the most effective manner. Those are some of the issues that the Minister will also need to address when it comes to clinical need.

There has also been a disturbing increase in the use of physical restraint on people with learning disabilities reported by health and care settings since the start of the pandemic, with usage increasing by over 150% at the peak of the pandemic compared with pre-covid levels. I would be obliged if the Minister would look at that extremely important matter.

I will finish by mentioning mental health. Often, we think about physical health—particularly in the midst of a pandemic—but forget to mention mental health, and I think mental health is going to be one of the key priorities right across the United Kingdom going forward. The mental health consequences of extended periods of isolation, increased care burden and financial stress have been well documented in recent months, but those mental health outcomes are exacerbated for those with learning disabilities and those who care for them. A survey by Mencap found that over 70% of parents of children with a disability admitted that their mental and psychological health had worsened as a result of the pandemic; four out of five family carers had been forced to provide unpaid care for their family members, leading to increased poverty; and one in five people with a disabled family member feared they would go into debt as a result of the pandemic.

These are extremely serious issues, and I invite the Minister to the all-party parliamentary group on disability to further discuss them. I thank everybody who has taken part in today’s debate.