People with learning disabilities have been disproportionately affected by Covid-19, be that by infection and mortality rates, or restricted support and policy. Now that a vaccine is just around the corner, many organisations have urged policymakers to priorities people with learning disabilities in any vaccination plan.
A revamped and buffed tier system was announced last week by Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and a few potential vaccine candidates seem tantalisingly imminent; both these developments signal that a new phase of the pandemic is beginning, although it is far from over.
As we move forwards, many member organisations and advocates for people with learning disabilities have voiced their concern that many people with learning disabilities have been forgotten by policymakers as to their risk from Covid-19, and have asked them to rethink and emphasise their priority in any vaccination programme.
The impact of Covid-19 on people with learning disabilities
The current crisis has disproportionally impacted those with learning disabilities, with a recent governmental review finding that people with learning disabilities were 3.6 times overrepresented in the Covid-19 death rate compared to the general population.
Moreover, the stats for all causes of deaths of people with learning disabilities when broken down by ethnicity compared to the previous two years found that: White groups have been 1.9 times higher, Asian or Asian British have been 4.5 times higher, and Black and Black British groups have 4.4 times higher.
Also, another report revealed that there has been a striking difference in the age of people who those died from Covid-19 compared general population; in the general population, 47% of deaths from Covid-19 are 85 years or older, while for people with learning disabilities only 4% of fatalities are 85 years or older.
Although, disproportionate rates of infection and mortality haven't been the only issues that have affected people with learning disabilities during this crisis: support networks have been disrupted, Government guidelines have remained inaccessible and inflexible, and the scandalous use of Do Not Attempt Resuscitation orders; have all contributed in isolating many vulnerable people from their friends and family, but also from the services which are meant to provide support and care.
Vaccinate the most vulnerable
However, there is light at the end of the tunnel, as over the last month Pfizer, Moderna, and Oxford/AstraZeneca have all announced provisional candidates in the vaccination-race, and they all seem promising because of their reported effectiveness of 70-95%. The logistics of any vaccine was outlined in September by the Joint Committee for Vaccination and Immunisation.
In their 11-stage plan, those deemed to be in high-risk groups will be given priority; initial priority will be those living in, and working in, care homes and then moving down age groups until 65-year-olds, and then, at number six and five on the list, high and moderate risk adults.
Notably, absently mentioned by name in the plan were high-risk groups such as people with learning disabilities, although they were alluded to in the middling priority ranks of high and moderate risk adults. But because of the shocking levels of infection and mortality, organisations such as Learning Disability England and Mencap have argued that vaccination for the community that they advocate for is far more pressing than what is current planned.
A spokesperson for Mencap said: “People with a learning disability have experienced shocking discrimination during the pandemic. They have been subjected to blanket Do Not Resuscitate notices, refused admittance to hospital and left in lockdown long after everyone else. Ignorance of the social care system meant they were the last to receive PPE and regular testing. There is an opportunity to put some of this right by ensuring that they are prioritised for vaccination regardless of where they live and the type of support they receive.”
Wendy Burnt and Jordan Smith, co-Chairs of Learning Disability England, last week wrote to Helen Whatley, Minister for Care at the Department of Health and Social Care, asking that further consideration be taken as to the priority of people with learning disabilities and also for those that support and care for them – such as friends, family, and workers assisting them.
Gary Bourlet, one of Learning Disability England's Membership and Engagement leads said: "People with a learning disability often rely on natural support, such as from family, friends and neighbours as well as paid support. We do not want people to be at risk or have to live restricted lives for longer than is absolutely necessary. Prioritising vaccination for people with a learning disability will help to address this higher risk of death from Covid and help people to access the support they need and be an active part of their community."