Disability rights must not be a casualty of COVID-19 – VODG statement on the Coronavirus Bill

The government’s Coronavirus Bill sets out a series of emergency provisions aimed at tackling the Coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak. The Bill is expected to become law after passing through the House of Lords on Wednesday (25).

While VODG acknowledges the unprecedented need for wholesale suspension of the Care Act, we are concerned that the emergency measures relating to social care will compromise human rights and put essential services for disabled people at risk.

As the emergency powers currently stand, the balance between protecting citizens from coronavirus and maintaining existing rights and safeguards for disabled people is at serious risk of tipping. Furthermore, the government has not yet set out how it has assessed risks and mitigation.

VODG is particularly concerned about:

  • The two-year time period. As it currently stands, the Bill enables the emergency measures to be in place for up to two years. It does not include the provision to ‘activate’ and ‘deactivate’ the powers or for regular Parliamentary review and oversight.
  • The suspension of the legal duty on councils, under the Care Act, to assess and provide social care for adults, including disabled and older people and carers – people in some of the most vulnerable circumstances. Currently, councils are required to meet all eligible assessed needs but clauses in the Bill will allow councils to prioritise who and what type of needs will be met.

The government has indicated that the measures will ease the potential burden on the system during a time of heightened need. However, the risk is that vital support for many disabled people, and people with learning disabilities and/or autism will be missing. There will be many who require support to understand the implications and measures imposed as well as to cope with the consequences of the suspension of existing rights and entitlements.

  • The removal of safeguards in relation to mental health detention, confinement, and discharge. Under the Bill, the power to detain someone under the Mental Health Act can be implemented by one person instead of two as currently stands. This increases the risk of arbitrary decision making and for a rise in the number of people deprived of their liberty and being detained in long-stay inpatient units – a move that is in complete opposition to the aims of the transforming care programme. Furthermore, VODG is concerned that provision for care in the community, for those people discharged in the next two years, will be impacted by the suspension of legal duties.
  • The suspension of the NHS Continuing Care Assessments, which ensure people with complex health needs are appropriately discharged from hospital and supported to be safe and well in the community.

Dr Rhidian Hughes, chief executive of VODG, said:

“As a country we are facing an unprecedented crisis and of course the government must take the necessary steps to protect all citizens. However, this must not be at the expense of disabled people’s hard won rights and entitlements. The emergency measures must be used as a last resort, temporarily, and with a clear end point.

“VODG is calling on the government to include provisions in the Bill for regular review and oversight and for the parliament to ‘activate’ and ‘deactivate’ the new powers. This would provide some measure of reassurance to disabled people, their families and the services that support them.”