Disabled people an ‘afterthought’ for government during COVID

The grim statistics on COVID-related hazards facing disabled people are discussed during UNISON’s Disability Live! online conference

Almost 60% of people whose deaths involved COVID-19 between March and July this year were disabled, UNISON’s Disability Live! online conference heard this week.

In light of those terrible figures, from the Office of National Statistics, speakers agreed that disabled people were an “afterthought” in the government’s approach to the pandemic.

Disability Live! was launched on Monday with a session in which disabled workers from all over the UK joined Labour’s shadow minister for disabled people, Vicky Foxcroft, the TUC’s Quinn Roche and UNISON’s Maureen LeMarinel for a discussion of the impact of COVID-19 on disabled people.

Citing the data on deaths from the Office of National Statistics, Vicky Foxcroft said: “What starker statistic do you need to show that government really have not got things right during this?”

She then outlined stark research from Citizens Advice that found 27% of disabled workers are facing redundancy due to COVID. This rises to 48% of those in the “shielded” category.

Ms Foxcroft called for the government to urgently put in place financial support for workers who can’t return to the workplace. She said: “Labour would have a different plan if we were in charge. We would not be forcing people back to high-risk workplaces, but would be making sure they have the financial security that they need.”

Maureen LeMarinel, an NEC member and former UNSION president, pointed to disabled people who were forced to go to work when it wasn’t safe, or who had to survive on sick pay – or even no pay.

“UNISON’s No Going Back to Normal campaign focuses on a right to home working, better enforcement of reasonable adjustments and robust action to tackle the disability pay gap,” she said.

Over 600 disabled UNISON members have signed up to take part in Disability Live!, with webinar sessions taking place all week on issues such as homeworking, organising, social care and Black disabled lives matter.

UNISON’s Iain Scott-Burdon, co-vice chair of the national disabled members’ committee, who chaired the opening session, said: “I was so sad when COVID meant we had to cancel our annual conference. But it was great that we could run Disability Live! instead. It was a pleasure to chair the opening session and to have so many interesting questions from our members.”

Deirdre Costigan, national officer for disability equality, noted that around double the number of people who usually attend UNISON’s annual disabled members’ conference had signed up for Disability Live!

“COVID-19 has been devastating for our members.  But we’ve found that the move to virtual events and meetings can open up the group to more disabled members,” she said.

“There’s still a lot of work to do to make virtual events fully accessible, but we’ll keep testing different technology so that we can find what works for all of our members.”