The forgotten frontline
05 February 2021
It has been a remarkable week, with news of more than 10 million people receiving the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine in the UK, our superb NHS colleagues and care providers have enabled this first step in protecting all older people living within care homes in England. We will certainly celebrate this significant milestone in our fight against the virus. However, we must not lose sight of the fact that so much more work needs to be done to vaccinate more of the vulnerable people being supported in social care and the wider care workforce.
Currently only older people with learning disabilities and those with Down’s syndrome are in the first phase priority for the vaccine, whilst people with a mild or moderate learning disability as autism are not. This is despite the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) advising that ‘the first priorities for the current COVID-19 vaccination programme should be the prevention of COVID-19 mortality and the protection of health and social care staff and systems.’
A Public Health England study in June 2020 found that people with learning disabilities had a higher death rate from COVID-19 in the first wave of the pandemic than the general population – ‘up to 4.1 times higher than the general population after adjusting for other factors such as age and sex’. Further research carried out by the University of Bristol into deaths of people with learning disabilities from COVID-19 showed a striking difference in age at death between COVID-19 deaths in the general population compared with people with learning disabilities. The report found that in the general population of England and Wales 47% of deaths from COVID-19 were in people aged 85 years and over, whilst of all deaths in people with learning disabilities from COVID-19 just 4% were aged over 85 years and over. Furthermore, there is no evidence that people with mild or moderate learning disabilities are in less danger from COVID-19. The data tells us that age-specific COVID-19 death rates per 100,000 are higher for people with learning disabilities across all adult age groups, but by a greater margin in younger age groups.
Another important group not included in the first phase vaccine priority list, but must be added urgently are people with severe mental illness. Kathy Roberts, CEO of The Association of Mental Health Providers - the leading representative body for voluntary and community sector mental health organisations in England and Wales - and Chair of the Care Provider Alliance said:
“People with mental health issues, and especially severe mental illness, for example Schizophrenia, have an increased risk of mortality from COVID-19. Often these individuals have medical comorbidities placing them at considerably higher risk of dying or having lasting or more severe consequences from COVID-19 than the wider population. For people with Schizophrenia, many of whom are supported in the community and not in residential settings, the risks could be as much as three times higher.
“Whilst, there is much to celebrate from the achievements of the vaccine rollout in the UK to date, people with learning disabilities and severe mental illness are the forgotten parts of the social care system in the vaccine prioritisation programme. The individuals who are at risk are not yet afforded the same level of access to the vaccine as the general population. Every effort must be taken to prioritise their access to the vaccine in order to save lives. We have a duty to protect the most vulnerable in our society and the right to access to the vaccine must be equally distributed to all those who are at greatest risk.”
Note to Editors:§
About Kathy Roberts
Kathy Roberts is the CEO of the Association of Mental Health Providers and the current Chair of the Care Provider Alliance.
With over 25 years of cross-sector senior leadership roles, Kathy was appointed as Chief Executive of The Association in April 2012. Throughout her career Kathy has championed the need for whole-person and whole-system approaches to the design, development and delivery of services; across health, social care and wider community, and is an advocate for true coproduction.
Kathy sits on several National Boards, representing the interests of the mental health voluntary and community sector providers. Kathy currently sits on the Department of Health and Social Care's Covid-19 Social Care Taskforce and chairs the Mental Health and Drug and Alcohol Advisory Group. She is also the current Chair of the Care Provider Alliance and co-chairs Health Education England's Peer Support Workers Oversight Group.
The Care Provider Alliance (CPA) is the collective, national voice of adult social care providers in England. It brings together the 10 national associations which represent private, voluntary and community sector providers, speaking for the whole of the adult social care sector – including care homes, home care services, Shared lives schemes and retirement communities. The CPA represents providers of support to adults with physical, sensory or learning disabilities, people with mental ill-health and older people. As an informal body, the role of CPA chair rotates annually across each of the ten associations. CPA members cover almost 10,000 organisations, employ over 600,000 staff and support an estimated 1 million people.
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