OPINION: Disabled and vulnerable people should not be collateral damage in efforts to return to pre-pandemic ‘normal’


By Sarah Reilly, disability rights advocate and researcher. She is co-founder and Director of the Women’s Research Centre

One of the things that has frustrated me the most throughout the Covid-19 pandemic is that the problems experienced by many disabled people are only ever recognised and addressed when they affect the wider population. Many of the same issues I raised about so-called ‘Freedom Day’ in July 2021 can be seen in the current Covid-19 ‘booster’ vaccination drive and the arguments made against introducing additional restrictions before Christmas and New Year.

Disabled people, those with long term health conditions and pensioners have had to wait the six months minimum time period between second and booster jabs. Many have been on waiting lists for appointments due to the closure of vaccination centres, with some even having to join long queues (even with a booked appointment) before finally getting the life protecting inoculation. As with the second jabs, this minimum time limit was reduced and more vaccinators found (this time including the armed forces) because the government wants to protect the wider population.

Since restrictions were lifted in summer 2021, it has often felt like many people are acting as if the Covid-19 pandemic never happened. Businesses have been urged by the UK government to get staff back into the office, and the furlough scheme ended. Those on the political right have become louder and louder in their claims that Covid-19 is nothing worse than a cold or flu, and that many of the rules and policies in place to protect citizens were an unnecessary overreaction.

There have also been a significantly large number of people who have chosen not to get vaccinated, citing lack of scientific evidence or conspiracy theories (such as vaccines containing microchips so people can be tracked). Most of the mandatory safety measures previously in place have now been reframed as guidance or personal responsibility.

As a disabled woman, who is in the vulnerable category according to the NHS, it was particularly stressful to witness the visible reduction in the number of people wearing masks, especially in England (in contrast to our visits to Northern Ireland, where people have generally continued to wear masks in enclosed spaces).

Mask wearing is again mandatory in indoor public spaces and public transport in England, with businesses required to take “reasonable measures” to ensure compliance. However, many people still do not follow these rules and are abusive when asked to. People wearing masks are still being insulted in the streets, which raises questions about whether some people have abdicated their own personal responsibility to limit the spread of the virus.

We are now entering a period in which more restrictions on personal freedoms are necessary in order to limit the spread of the Omicron variant. Once again hospital admission rates are increasing rapidly, as the daily infection rate rises exponentially. The NHS is under enormous strain, particularly due to staff absences, with hospital trusts across England declaring critical incidents and troops sent to plug staffing gaps in London.

But the government continues to emphasise the importance of personal responsibility and vaccination to mitigate the risks of infection, with a reluctance to implement more stringent measures. Last month, there was a large Tory rebellion against the so called ‘Plan B’ measures, with one MP even comparing the introduction of vaccine passports to living in Nazi Germany. This week the Prime Minister also said that he hopes that England can “ride out” the current Omicron wave “without shutting down the country”.

Disabled people should not be collateral damage in efforts to return everybody else to the pre-pandemic normal. Those who complain they cannot abide by measures designed to protect the lives of citizens don’t seem to have a problem when it comes to creating barriers to inclusion for disabled people, whether it be in the workplace, entertainment venues, education or housing.

Indeed, many of the same politicians who voted against COVID-19 safety measures supported austerity policies which made life intolerable for many disabled people. Perhaps it’s time that policymakers focus on the few, not the many for a change.

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