Covid-19: Effect on People with Learning Disabilities

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 5:25 pm on 15th December 2020.

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Photo of Helen Whately Helen Whately Minister of State (Department of Health and Social Care) 5:25 pm, 15th December 2020

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ghani. I thank Christian Matheson for securing a debate on this very important topic.

The pandemic has impacted everybody, but many of those with learning disabilities have been particularly hard hit. I know how difficult it has been for them, their carers and loved ones to continue to be supported to live fulfilling lives during the pandemic. Wherever possible, we have made exemptions and reasonable adjustments to the restrictions for disabled people, while balancing that with the need to keep people safe. Sadly, we know that some of those with a learning disability have suffered the worst effects of covid-19 and passed away. I send my deepest condolences to their families and friends.

Rushanara Ali asked me to talk about what we are doing about the high mortality from covid of those with learning disabilities. We commissioned Public Health England to analyse the information about deaths for people with learning disabilities in order to understand the impact of covid-19 and ensure that we could take every possible step to protect people. As hon. Members have said, its report estimated that, in the first wave, people with learning disabilities had a mortality rate from covid-19 that was between 4.1 and 6.3 times higher than the general population. We know that some of the difference is associated with having other health conditions such as Down’s syndrome and with place of residence.

The University of Bristol recently published a LeDeR—Learning Disabilities Mortality Review—report setting out findings from reviews of deaths from covid-19 of people with learning disabilities, which adds to our understanding. The findings of those reports are very concerning. I want to reassure hon. Members that we did not wait for the publication of those reports to take action. Rather, we have worked continuously to protect people throughout the pandemic, and I will briefly set out some of the actions we have taken.

From the adult social care action plan back in April to the adult social care winter plan published in November, we have worked to ensure that people who need care, including those with learning disabilities, are protected as much as possible from the worst outcomes of covid-19. That has included introducing the infection control fund, now totalling £1.1 billion, to ensure that care settings, including day services, are covid-secure. We are providing free PPE for adult social care providers until March 2021. That includes domiciliary care and personal assistance, as well as residential care homes. As testing capacity has increased, we have extended asymptomatic testing not only across care homes but to domiciliary care staff. Following the roll-out of the single round of national testing to the most high-risk extra care and supported living settings, we have launched regular retesting for those settings.

The hon. Member for City of Chester spoke about DNACPRs and the concern about their inappropriate recording in patient records. When I heard about that, I too was very concerned and shocked. The blanket application of DNACPRs to any group of people is completely unacceptable, and I want that message to be said as many times as it needs to be to ensure that that practice does not continue. When we heard that it was happening, a series of communications went out from the Department, the Secretary of State and NHS England to say that there needed to be an immediate stop to that practice. As has been said, the Care Quality Commission is looking into that. The 2021 general medical services quality and outcome framework was updated in September, and it requires GPs to review all DNACPR decisions for people with learning disabilities to make sure they are appropriate.

The hon. Gentleman also spoke about the need for training to ensure healthcare staff have the skill and understanding they need to care for people with learning disabilities. I completely agree with that, which is why I am working with Health Education England and Skills for Care to develop the Oliver McGowan mandatory training to ensure that all staff have the skills and understanding they need.

Several Members asked about remote consultations. The NHS medical director of primary care wrote to GPs in September, asking them to continue to ensure that patients who need to can access face-to-face care.

I am sure that, like me, hon. Members welcomed the incredible news that a vaccine against covid has been approved. They will know that the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, the independent body responsible for identifying priority groups for vaccinations, has published its advice on prioritisation. In advance of that process, we shared with the JCVI the latest evidence on people with learning disabilities and covid—including the Public Health England work that I referred to—to inform their approach and ensure that those with learning disabilities would be considered alongside older people, for instance, for whom the risks are very well known. The JCVI’s advice, published in December, stated that people on the clinically extremely vulnerable list, including those with Down’s syndrome, should be in priority group four for vaccination, and that people with a severe or profound learning disability should be in priority group six.