Coronavirus: Return of benefit sanctions in middle of pandemic ‘is barbaric’

By John Pring

Disabled campaigners have described the government’s decision to reintroduce benefit sanctions – in the middle of a pandemic – as “barbaric” and “life threatening”.

The decision meant an end to the three-month suspension of benefit sanctions and conditionality* in England, Scotland and Wales, which had been introduced in March as part of the COVID-19 lockdown measures.

Jobcentres will start re-opening this week in England, but not in Scotland and Wales, where claimants will only receive services online and by phone.

This means that some claimants in England will now begin to have face-to-face discussions with work coaches in jobcentres.

But there has been little information on exactly how these steps will work and how they will affect disabled and other claimants.

Work and pensions secretary Therese Coffey said restoring conditionality and the threat of benefit sanctions was “an essential part of the contract to help people start to reconsider what vacancies there are”.

But it came as the government continued to ease the lockdown that has been in place across England since March, while also imposing a local lockdown in Leicester after a spike of infections.

Millions of disabled people – many of them on out-of-work benefits and now potentially subject to the threat of sanctions – are still shielding from the virus.

Yesterday, work and pensions ministers also removed a crucial line from guidance for claimants of universal credit (UC) that previously assured them: “You will not get a sanction if you cannot keep to your Claimant Commitment because of coronavirus (COVID-19).”

This suggests that UC claimants will no longer be able to use the fact that they are shielding, or have COVID-19 symptoms, as a reason for breaching their claimant commitment (the agreement that sets out what they have to do to continue to receive UC).

DWP refused to comment on the removal of this line, or even to confirm that sanctions would now apply again to all claimants previously at risk of having one imposed, including those in the work-related activity group of employment and support allowance (and the equivalent universal credit group).

Instead, the department attempted to persuade journalists, including Disability News Service (DNS), that the move to restore sanctions was “compassionate” and “understanding”, that sanctions would not be imposed “for no good reason”, and that the re-imposition was “rooted in a new normal” and their use would be “more compassionate” and “reasonable” than pre-pandemic.

The decision to re-impose sanctions and conditionality from 1 July after a three-month pause was greeted with anger and disbelief by disabled activists.

Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC) held an online action yesterday to protest at the re-imposition.

DPAC said in a statement: “Claimants have been left both anxious and uncertain.

“There is now overwhelming evidence of both the serious harm that the sanctions regime inflicts on the most disadvantaged members of society and the fact that sanctions are punitive and counter-productive to the aim of getting people off benefits and into work.”

It also appealed to disabled people and allies to join the new Scrap Universal Credit Alliance.

Pam Duncan-Glancy, a disabled Labour parliamentary candidate at the last general election, said the decision to reintroduce sanctions was “barbaric”.

She said on Twitter: “The standard to which I hold the Gov in this regard is low. Even by that standard, this is off the scale.

“Brutal at the best of times, but in these times this policy on sanctions is a death sentence.”

Kerena Marchant, a Deaf campaigner who stood for Labour at the last general election, said in a video that restarting sanctions would place Deaf and disabled people “in an impossible situation”.

She said: “They will have to choose between the life-threatening risk of the hostile environment of the DWP and that of the pandemic. They both are life-threatening.

“We’ve already had DWP suicides and deaths and this could lead to more.”

Paula Peters, a member of DPAC’s national steering group, described in a video some of the personal testimonies of disabled people who have had universal credit sanctions imposed on them.

One woman, who was unsuccessful in four job interviews, was sanctioned because DWP said she was not happy enough, even though she had depression and anxiety.

Another woman was told by the jobcentre not to mention that she was disabled because such a term was “political”.

This woman was also accused of lying about her seizures, until she had a seizure in the jobcentre.

She was still sanctioned for three months and had to rely on friends and family for food, said Peters.

Another disabled activist, Andy Mitchell, said in a video to support the action: “We are still in the middle of a pandemic, we still have people shielding, we still have people self-isolating, we still have families home-schooling their children because they cannot go to school.

“We know that hundreds of thousands of people are about to lose their jobs, we know that the homeless are about to be released from hotels because the contracts have ended and the money has run out. And we have this situation in Leicester.

“We are still in the middle of a pandemic, yet DWP have dug in their heels and refused to extend the ban. This is wrong.”

Debbie Abrahams, Labour’s former shadow work and pensions secretary, also spoke in support of DPAC’s campaign, saying: “We know sanctions don’t work. In fact they can make things worse, dehumanising people and creating mental health problems.”

Ian Blackford, the SNP leader at Westminster, told Boris Johnson at prime minister’s questions yesterday that the decision was “heartless”, “cruel” and “unnecessary”.

Johnson asked Blackford “to think that he may be mistaken”.

Disability Rights UK said this week that the decision to reintroduce conditionality and sanctions was “appalling” and “must be reversed”.

Ken Butler, DR UK’s welfare rights and policy adviser, said: “Conditionality and sanctions actively harmed disabled people before both were lifted in March.

“To reintroduce them with no discussion, in the environment of an economic recession, with millions more universal credit claimants and amid a viral pandemic, shows a scant regard for the welfare and safety of disabled people.”

He also pointed out that the PCS union had warned that reopening jobcentres so soon “could create a perfect storm as staff and customers are faced with lack of social distancing, inadequate personal protective equipment and the real risk of COVID-19 being brought into workplaces”.

Coffey told MPs this week: “It is important that as the jobcentres fully reopen this week, we reinstate the need for a claimant commitment.

“It is an essential part of the contract to help people start to reconsider what vacancies there are, but I know that I can trust the work coaches and jobcentre managers, who are empowered to act proactively with people.”

A DWP spokesperson added: “We’ve been there for those who have lost jobs or have reduced hours in this pandemic, promptly processing new claims and getting money into the accounts of those in urgent need within days.

“Now our focus is rightly switching to getting Britain back into work.

“From July, people can make an appointment with their work coach if they can’t get the help they want online or over the phone and work coaches will be calling all claimants to help them get ready for the world of work.”

*Under conditionality, the rules claimants have to meet in order to avoid losing some or all of their out-of-work benefits through sanctions can include pledging to carry out a certain number of hours looking for and applying for jobs, networking, updating a CV, or attending training

Coronavirus: Return of benefit sanctions in middle of pandemic ‘is barbaric’

UK coronavirus rules relaxed for people with autism and learning disabilities

Policy updated after lawyers challenge ‘discriminatory’ lockdown measures

People with learning disabilities or autism can leave the house for exercise more than once a day and can travel outside of their local area under current lockdown measures, the government has said.

The guidance, which had previously stated that non-essential workers should only leave their homes once a day for exercise or to shop for basic necessities, was amended on Wednesday.

The updated advice reads: “If you (or a person in your care) have a specific health condition that requires you to leave the home to maintain your health – including if that involves travel beyond your local area – then you can do so.

“This could, for example, include where individuals with learning disabilities or autism require specific exercise in an open space two or three times each day – ideally in line with a care plan agreed with a medical professional.”

Although those with autism and mental health conditions are advised to limit their travel, and stay as close to their local area as possible, carers and support workers who do not live in their household can accompany them.

The change comes after lawyers from Bindmans LLP and 39 Essex Chambers were asked for help by two families with children on the autistic spectrum.

Bindmans said one of the children, whose conditions mean it was necessary for them to leave the house more than once a day for their wellbeing, was deliberately taken to a quiet location outside of their local area because of their particular needs.

The firms argued that the “inflexible policy”, which also says people should stay two metres apart from anyone outside of their household, disproportionately impacted those with certain health conditions and was “therefore unlawful and discriminatory”.

After the amendment was made to the guidance, one of the affected families said they were “delighted” they could support their son’s needs “without breaking the rules”.

A spokesperson for the Cabinet Office said the most important action the public could take during the pandemic was to stay home to prevent the spread of Covid-19.

But, it added: “We understand that this will be more difficult for some, that is why we clarified the guidance regarding the needs of those with specific health conditions such as learning disabilities or autism.”

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/apr/14/uk-coronavirus-rules-autism-learning-disabilities-lockdown

Coronavirus: U-turn on critical care advice for NHS amid fears disabled people will be denied treatment

‘Many autistic and learning disabled people and their families have believed that they are treated as less than human, and it certainly felt as if the guidance was confirming just that’

Shaun LinternHealth Correspondent @ShaunLintern
Wednesday 25 March 2020

Emergency guidance to help doctors decide who should get critical care during the coronavirus outbreak is being urgently re-written after a U-turn by a national health watchdog over fears it could mean disabled people are denied treatment.

The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) had been threatened with legal action for telling doctors they should assess patients with learning disabilities, autism and other limiting conditions as scoring high for frailty.

But, following complaints from families and campaigners, NICE has said it will reissue its guidance.

NICE’s national guidance for the NHS, published on Friday, advised doctors on how to choose who gets life-saving intensive care treatment such as ventilation in the event of critical care services being overwhelmed during a surge of Covid-19 patients.

It included a frailty score that told hospitals to “assess all adults for frailty, irrespective of age and Covid-19 status” using a nine-point frailty scoring system with people “completely dependent for personal care, from whatever cause” scoring seven.

Anyone scoring higher than five was said to have uncertainty around the benefits of critical care.

Despite NICE accepting the guidance is wrong, at the time of publishing, it had yet to remove the incorrect documents from its website.

Peter Todd partner at Hodge, Jones and Allen solicitors, wrote to NICE on Tuesday demanding the guidance was withdrawn and that it made clear the original documents were wrong.

He told The Independent: “The guidance is still published on the NICE website and says that clinicians should comply with it. It would be better if they took it down and amended it before it was published again.

“You could be totally forgiven as a doctor for thinking this was still a valid policy, but they have already accepted they have made a major blunder.”

He explained that, as the guidance is currently worded, it meant young people with disabilities, autism or other mental health problems “have been classed as not to be offered critical care if required and that seems to be discriminatory and I don’t see how it can be justified. I think it is also a breach of the Human Rights Act.

“If they made clear doctors should not apply this frailty score to anyone who has autism or learning disabilities that would help, but it needs to be emblazoned on the policy. What I asked them to do was to unpublish the guidance and put a notice up to say it had been withdrawn and to consult first and republish it properly amended.”

Julie Newcombe, co-founder of Rightful Lives and whose son Jamie has autism said: “The original guidance was quite simply frightening. For a long time now, many autistic and learning disabled people and their families have believed that they are treated as less than human, and it certainly felt as if the guidance was confirming just that.

“The hastily put together clarification is welcome, but I still wonder how that will translate on the ground given that attitudes in some areas are so entrenched.”

Edel Harris, chief executive of the learning disability charity Mencap, also criticised the guidance saying: “People with a learning disability and their families are deeply troubled that the latest NICE guidance for NHS intensive care doctors could result in patients with a learning disability not getting equal access to critical care and potentially dying avoidably.

“These guidelines suggest that those who can’t do everyday tasks like cooking, managing money and personal care independently – all things that people with a learning disability often need support with – might not get intensive care treatment.”

He added it was vital NICE made clear patients should not be assessed for critical care based on their cognitive abilities.

A spokesperson for NICE told The Independent it was very aware of the concerns.

They added: “Our new Covid-19 rapid guideline on critical care was developed to support critical care teams in their management of patients during this very difficult period of intense pressure.

“The guideline says that on admission to hospital, all adults should be assessed for frailty, and that other comorbidities and underlying health conditions are also taken into account.

“The frailty scoring system is not perfect, therefore we recommend that clinicians should take any decisions about care in conjunction with patients and their carers where possible.

“We welcome the recent clarification that the Clinical Frailty Score should not be used in certain groups, including those with learning disability or with stable long-term disabilities such as cerebral palsy, which we will reflect in an updated version of our guideline.”

https://www.independent.co.uk/news/health/coronavirus-nhs-treatment-disabled-autism-nice-covid-19-a9423441.html