People with learning disabilities ‘bottom of the pile’ without vaccine priority

Max McLean, PA

Campaigners have urged the Government to prioritise all people with learning disabilities for vaccination, with some of those left out saying they feel like they are “at the bottom of the pile”.

Currently people with Down’s syndrome are placed in priority group four under official guidelines, while those with severe and profound learning disabilities are in priority group six.

However, many with a mild or moderate learning disability have not been prioritised at all, despite concerns that they could be at greater risk from the virus.

Ciara Lawrence, 41, works for the UK learning disability charity Mencap.

Her disability means she often requires new information to be explained more thoroughly.

She said the delay in available and accessible coronavirus guidance has led to concerns she may not understand guidance that could save her life.

“In the first lockdown, my mum was trying to explain everything to me, I had to talk to my husband to explain things to me,” she told the PA news agency.

“It makes me feel second class that I have to ask for clarification and for reasoning. It makes it harder.

“I’m just saying that people with a learning disability are important too, we have lives, we have feelings.

“I feel like people like us are at the bottom of the pile. Really we should be prioritised because we have a disability. We need support. We need reasonable adjustments.”

A study by Public Health England found that people with learning disabilities in England were up to six times more likely to die with coronavirus during the first wave of the outbreak.

In a December letter to deputy chief medical officer Professor Jonathan Van-Tam, Learning Disability England warned that the current categorisation of “at risk” people risked missing out conditions “particularly relevant for people with learning disabilities”.

One example given was dysphagia, a medical term for swallowing difficulties.

Dysphagia increases the risk of aspiration pneumonia, which occurs when food, saliva, liquids or vomit is breathed into the lungs or airways leading to the lungs – this can lead to bacterial infection, damage to the lungs and respiratory failure.

Ben McCay, co-chair of trustees at self-advocacy organisation My Life My Choice, has a mild learning disability which makes learning new skills and remembering things more difficult.

“A lot of people with learning disabilities live independent lives and live on their own,” the 44-year-old from Banbury in Oxfordshire told PA.

“So they have to actually go out and get their own food and medicine, so put themselves at even more risk.

“I think the MPs in Parliament think that we all have carers and family members coming and checking we’re OK, and doing our food and medicine shopping. That’s just not the case.”

An NHS study conducted in 2017-18 found a larger proportion of patients with a learning disability were obese (37.5%) than those without one (29.9%).

Obesity is a known risk factor for severe symptoms from Covid-19.

Currently people can be prioritised for vaccination based on individual or local circumstances by their local authority, clinical care group or GP – but campaigners are calling for a nationwide approach.

Mencap is among those calling for all people with a learning disability to be put in priority group six, arguing that this would also save time wasted categorising the community.

Dan Scorer, head of policy at Mencap, said: “People with a learning disability have long been forgotten and discriminated against, and never more so than in this crisis.

“They have died at greater rates, had do-not-resuscitate (DNR) orders slapped on their files and suffered through severe isolation.”

He said the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation’s approach to the current priority list was “flawed and fails to consider a host of social, economic and health inequalities”.

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