How have people with disabilities in the UK been affected by the pandemic?

People with disabilities in the UK have faced an increased risk of ill health and death during the Covid-19 pandemic when compared to the rest of the population. One in five people in the UK (14.1 million) report having a disability. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) has reported that people with a disability in the UK have been more likely to die as a result of Covid-19. Between January and November 2020, people with disabilities accounted for 6 out of every 10 deaths (59.5%) involving Covid-19. There has also been an increase in deaths in care homes and among those receiving care in their own homes during the pandemic.

The ONS has also found the negative social impacts of the pandemic have been greater for disabled people. Among people who indicated that their wellbeing had been affected by Covid-19, 46% of disabled people said the pandemic had a negative impact on their mental health. This compares with 29% for non-disabled people. The Health Foundation has also reported that disabled people are more likely to report that Covid-19 restrictions had a negative impact on their lives.

Access to services

The Health Foundation found that disabled people are more likely to report that their medical treatment has been disrupted during the pandemic. In April 2021, the ONS reported that 40% of disabled people in Great Britain said the pandemic had negatively affected their ability to access healthcare for non-coronavirus related issues.

In December 2020, the House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee published a report entitled ‘Unequal Impact? Coronavirus, Disability and Access to Services’. This identified several issues, including reduced access to food, health and social care, and reduced access to education for children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities. On the issue of food, the committee argued that 60% of disabled people struggled to access essential supplies during the pandemic. It argued the Government’s focus on providing access to food for people who were classed as ‘clinically extremely vulnerable’ during the pandemic had meant other people who needed access to food had not been provided with the support they needed.

Responding to this report, the Government said it had taken measures during the period when the pandemic restrictions were in place to ensure all disabled people continued to have access to food, including through visits by NHS volunteer responders.

Disability pay gap and Covid-19

In a separate report published in January 2021, the Women and Equalities Committee said the economic impact of Covid-19 had had a disproportionate effect on disabled people. It recommended that the Government improve reporting on the gap between disabled and non-disabled employees’ average pay, referred to as the disability pay gap. The House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee made a similar recommendation in its report on the disability employment gap, published in July 2021.

Responding to a written question tabled by Lord Shinkwin (Conservative) in November 2021, the Government confirmed the Covid-19 pandemic had had a negative impact on the disability pay gap during 2020. However, Baroness Stedman-Scott, the Minister for Work and Pensions, said the pay gap had narrowed during the first and second quarter of 2021.

Government proposals

In its spring 2021 Covid-19 response strategy, the Government acknowledged that people with disabilities were amongst those groups disproportionately affected by the pandemic. It said that it was committed to addressing the longer-term implications of Covid-19 for disabled people.

The Government published a national strategy for disabled people in July 2021. This included a commitment to increase the availability of intensive personalised employment support for people with disabilities from August 2021.

In July 2021, the Government also published ‘Shaping Future Support: The Health and Disability Green Paper’. This included proposals intended to increase access to benefits and support for disabled people. For example, the Government proposed doing more to encourage access to employment support for disabled people not in work or for those who have a disability that affects the work they can do. The green paper also included proposals to change the structure of the main benefits claimed by working-age disabled people. Currently, claimants may be required to have multiple assessments for different benefits. The Government said it intended to reduce the complexity of this system. A consultation on the proposals was conducted between July and October 2021. The Government has yet to publish its response to this consultation.

Responding to the proposals in the green paper, the campaign group Disability Rights UK has argued that any change to the benefits system should address those disabled people not currently able to access the support they need. Separately, Disability Rights UK has criticised the Government’s decision to end the uplift to universal credit introduced during the pandemic, arguing this would have a negative impact on people with disabilities. The charity Scope has said that any reforms to the welfare system for disabled people should involve a radical overhaul of the assessments system, which it has described as “woefully flawed”.

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Cover image by Marcus Aurelius on Pexels.