In March, the Coronavirus Act became law despite concerns raised by many disabled people that it infringes upon our rights. For years, social services have had a responsibility to provide support for disabled people, but the new Act allows local authorities to suspend this statutory duty in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.
Instead, local authorities will only have to provide care “if they consider it necessary” to avoid a breach of the European Convention on Human Rights. Despite hard-fought battles leading to rights in employment, education and housing, there is no explicit right to social care or independent living. Disability Rights UK’s Head of Policy, Fazilet Hadi, expressed concerns that as “it is only people with the highest needs that receive local authority care and support, it can’t be right to leave this group of people without a vital lifeline.”
As well as restricting access to social care, access to education for disabled children and young people is also affected. Education, Health and Care Plans are legal documents that outline a child’s special education, health and care needs and the support that will be provided in order to meet them. However, the emergency legislation relaxes the legal duties on local authorities and clinical commissioning groups to secure this provision. This is likely to have a greater impact on children with greater support needs, with disabled children having no right to provision for the first time in decades.
Despite much talk of protecting mental health during lockdown, the Coronavirus Act also amends the Mental Health Act, with detentions only requiring one doctor’s authorisation instead of the previous two. This makes it easier for people to be detained for longer or be discharged into the community too early while they continue to need vital support. On this, Disability Rights UK calls for the previous safeguards to be maintained, saying it is unreasonable to rely on the judgement of a single doctor given the potential for such significant withdrawals of liberty.
Disabled peoples’ struggles during the coronavirus pandemic are not limited to the law. Many are finding that support for vulnerable people operates strict eligibility criteria; for visually impaired people like me who rely on online grocery delivery to shop independently, it’s been impossible to find delivery slots. I helped set up the Broomhill, Broomhall and Sharrow Vale Covid-19 mutual aid network and much of our time is spent providing support to disabled people who are being forgotten in the government’s response.
While there is no doubt that the coronavirus pandemic is a significant event in the world’s history, with over four million confirmed cases worldwide, disabled people and our hard-won rights must not be collateral. Instead, disabled people and our organisations must be at the heart of decision making and disaster planning.
Martha Foulds is one of the founders of the Broomhill, Broomhall and Sharrow Vale Mutual Aid group, and a student at the University of Sheffield.