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

We will continue to scrutinise all possible evidence and data we can get to understand the impact of the steps we are taking. For instance, as I have set out, we have supported residential care settings and other carers to ensure that they have the PPE and infection control support they need. Sadly, we still see that care homes are experiencing outbreaks of covid. It is incredibly hard to stop the disease getting into these places when it is prevalent in the community. We know that the most important thing we can all do to keep those who are most vulnerable to covid safe is to take steps to reduce the spread of covid in the wider community. I assure the hon. Member that we are continually looking at the evidence and at what more is possible to do to keep people safe.

In fact—I was coming to this exact point—I have asked the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies care working group to consider the findings in the Public Health England and LeDeR reports to help us develop further targeted actions. The Department has commissioned research to better understand the impact of the pandemic on the wellbeing and lives of people with a learning disability. That is being led by the University of Warwick and Manchester Metropolitan University. The insights from this research will help us to further mitigate and reduce harm from covid-19, including tackling isolation and loneliness. We will keep the evidence under review.

I come now more broadly to restrictions, which I know have been particularly hard for people with learning disabilities. In particular, visiting loved ones for those who are in residential care settings has been incredibly difficult for families, friends and the individual themselves. On 1 December, we published updated guidance on visiting care homes. We advised care homes to use the rapid tests that we are providing, together with PPE and other infection control measures, to enable safer visiting. There is also guidance on visiting in-patient healthcare settings. That was updated in October, and NHS England and NHS Improvement wrote to mental health learning disability and autism in-patient providers to remind them that they must take all possible steps to enable safe regular visits.

Charlotte Nichols asked about the visiting out guidance for those of working age. An enormous amount of care was taken over that to try and establish the right balance to enable people to go and see their family if that is what they normally do while they live in a residential care setting, while recognising that they may well be in a setting where others in that care home, for instance, may be extremely clinically vulnerable to covid. As I have said, we know that once covid gets into a residential setting, it is really hard to stop it spreading. That is why the clinical advice is very strong on saying that those returning to a care setting after a visit out should quarantine for 14 days. I am really aware that that is a very difficult thing to ask people to do, but the reason it is in there is because that setting may well have people who are clinically extremely vulnerable, and there is such a risk. It is not just about the one individual visiting out; we must bear in mind the risk to the whole group of residents. That is why the guidance is as it is.

Before I conclude my remarks, I will talk about the restrictions on the day-to-day activities, which all of us have been complying with. We have made exceptions and reasonable adjustments wherever possible, for example by excluding support groups such as day services from the rule of six, setting out clear exemptions to mandatory face coverings, including where a person cannot wear one due to a disability, and working to ensure that that is communicated. There has been some debate about this and whether the ban should be much more strongly enforced, but I have personally worked really hard to communicate the importance of there being exemptions.

We have also, wherever possible, produced guidance in accessible formats, such as easy-read. We continue to work with stakeholder groups and organisations such as Mencap, which has rightly been mentioned during the debate, to ensure that we get input on the potential implications of restrictions on people with a learning disability, and how we can best mitigate those implications.

To conclude, I thank all hon. Members for their contributions on this important topic. We are all deeply committed to helping protect people with a learning disability from the worst effects of covid-19, and I hope that what I have set out today does assure Members that the Government are working tirelessly to make that happen.