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Saturday, 27 February 2021

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Charity calls on PM to drive better awareness of COVID-19 risks for people with learning disabilities

NORWOOD, a charity supporting those with learning disabilities and autism, has called for people with learning disabilities and their families to be given greater support and to be more highly prioritised during the next phase of the vaccine rollout. 

Currently, the rules do not prioritise younger people suffering from learning disabilities, and the charity has warned that we are experiencing many needless deaths and much needless suffering.

Norwood provides residential and supported living and community services to people of all ages, including the elderly, with a learning disability, Autism, and other associated complex needs.

Norwood has welcomed the incredible news that the government has reached its target of offering the vaccine to all people within the first 4 JCVI priority groups but says that going forward, there has to be an increased awareness of the risks associated with COVID-19 for people with learning disabilities.

This comes after local MP, James Sunderland, was forced to intervene to secure access to the vaccine for 74 vulnerable patients. They had been previously ‘overlooked’ despite many being over 70 – have not received any confirmation of when they would receive their first dose.

While these vulnerable patients have now been successfully vaccinated, it is vital that this crisis is not replicated across the UK, where understanding learning disabled people needs to improve.

Dr Beverley Jacobson, Chief Executive of Norwood, said: 

“We are all sincerely relieved that our vulnerable residents across London and Berkshire have no longer been ignored by the vaccination rollout and are now protected against COVID-19.  Special thanks to James Sunderland for his intervention and success in securing vaccines in Berkshire and to the wonderful patient nurses who administered the vaccines to our complex cohort of residents.

“It is heartbreaking that so many people have suffered during the pandemic. And while we welcome ministers’ efforts, the Prime Minister must ensure that people with learning disabilities across the country have better access to vaccines and use this crisis to enhance our understanding of the challenges all vulnerable people face. It is not as simple as just looking at someone’s age.”

A report published in November 2020 by Public Health England showed that people with a learning disability had a death rate 6.3 times higher than the general population during the pandemic’s first wave. A total of 80% of the deaths of people with learning disabilities were coronavirus related in the week ending January 22.

The JCVI has placed those with a severe or profound learning disability in Group Six on the vaccine priority list. However, autistic children and adults do not fit into this category, and neither do people with moderate learning disabilities. These people are still at a higher risk of COVID-19 than adults with no underlying health conditions.

New data from the Office for National Statistics has also shown that people with disabilities made up six out of 10 deaths from Coronavirus in England up to November 2020, with more than 30,000 deaths.

These are not just statistics. 5 residents at the Ravenswood site have died over the last 6 weeks.

Without the intervention and commitment of Norwood’s local MPs, over 75% of the Ravenswood site patients would have been left extremely vulnerable.

The vaccination crisis at Norwood is just one example of a wider systemic issue of how there is little awareness of how people with learning and other disabilities are more vulnerable to COVID-19. The current red-tape and bureaucracy have failed to consider the specific health needs and requirements of patients with learning disabilities, who are among the most vulnerable in society.

Going forward into the next phase of the programme, people with learning disabilities have to be prioritised.

Across the country, charities like Norwood are already under immense pressure from COVID-19. The daily operations of charities have had to change in line with government guidance in order to protect vulnerable residents and staff from contracting COVID-19.

Cuts have compounded this pressure to grants, and a significant reduction in income as events and other fundraising initiatives have had to be curtailed due to COVID restrictions.

Julie Skelly, Head of Services – Berkshire at Norwood, said: 

“I would like to thank everyone involved in escalating the concerns about the delay in vaccinations for our residents. It was a fantastic team effort by all involved, and I know many will be comforted by knowing that their loved ones and our residents have received this important defence against COVID.

“I have personally spent time on a Covid ward with one of our residents. This was an experience I never want to repeat. Even more, I never want any of the people we support to need or experience this care. Seeing the fear in both our residents and other patient’s eyes will remain with me forever.

“I am so pleased that our worries and frustrations that the vulnerability of our patients was forgotten have been alleviated. Our ability to respond quickly underlines this government’s commitment to leading the world in vaccinating citizens – what’s clear is that people with learning disabilities are at a higher level of risk, and thus, must remain a priority as we move forward into the next stage of the roll-out.”

James Sunderland, MP for Bracknell, said: 

“There are many people who, for a variety of reasons, are susceptible to COVID -19, and we must do all we can to protect those who are vulnerable. I was pleased to be able to assist Norwood, a charity that does amazing work across many communities.”

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