The Government has pushed back against a legal challenge that argues all adults with learning disabilities should be given priority access to Covid vaccinations.
Bindmans LLP issued urgent judicial review proceedings against Matt Hancock on 22 January on behalf of two people with learning disabilities, who are seeking priority access to the vaccine ‘on an equal basis with other highly clinically vulnerable individuals’.
Last week (10 February) the firm published a statement that said the health secretary had now responded and the Government has not conceded the claim or accepted that its arguments have legal force.
‘They [The Government] do not accept that priority access to the vaccine should be granted to all adults with learning disabilities, or to those living in care settings other than care homes for older adults,’ the statement from Bindmans said.
A spokesperson for the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) said it would not comment on potential legal proceedings.
Bindmans said it had filed a response on behalf of the claimants, arguing that the Government had given insufficient weight to a Public Health England (PHE) report published in November, which found people with learning disabilities were between three and six times more likely to die from Covid-19 than the general population.
For younger individuals with learning disabilities the PHE report found the inequality was even starker, with those under 35 up to 30 times more likely to die with Covid than their peers.
Bindmans’ statement added that if the Administrative Court grants the claimants’ application for permission and expedition of the challenge, it has requested a final hearing date for early March 2021.
‘Afraid and feel unimportant’
This comes as Mencap reported earlier this month (2 February) that during the week ending 22 January 2021, 80% of deaths of people with a learning disability were Covid-related, compared with 45% among the general population.
Dan Scorer, Mencap’s head of policy, said of the charity’s report: ‘The Government is not acting on the clear evidence that all people with a learning disability are highly vulnerable to dying from Covid-19, not only those already included in vaccine priority groups.’
Mr Scorer added that the medical approach taken by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) to the vaccination priority list was ‘flawed’ and ‘fails to consider a host of social, economic and health inequalities’.
‘We are urgently calling for everyone with a learning disability – who are among the most vulnerable in society to dying from Covid – to be prioritised in group 6 for the vaccine,’ he said.
Scott Watkin, a member representative for Learning Disability England, told Healthcare Leader: ‘Many of us are afraid and feel unimportant because, although people with learning disabilities have died of Covid at a higher rate than non-disabled people we do not see enough happening to stop that.’
He added: ‘Whatever way you look at it, the numbers say people with learning disabilities have been affected more by Covid – on top of already dying younger than their non-disabled peers.’
‘It is hard to understand why the Government or JCVI will not change their policy to include everyone with a learning disability when it would be easier to manage as well as fairer.’
Under the current JCVI prioritisation guidance, only people with Down syndrome and ‘severe and profound’ learning disabilities have priority access to the vaccine and are in cohort six.
Over the weekend (13 February), NHS England issued a letter to local vaccination sites urging PCN sites to ‘focus their efforts’ on inviting patients from cohort six for vaccination.
The letter advised GPs to ‘use clinical discretion to ensure the right people who meet the severe and profound learning disability definition are on the register’.
The current priority groups are as follows:
- residents in a care home for older adults and their carers
- all those 80 years of age and over and frontline health and social care workers
- all those 75 years of age and over
- all those 70 years of age and over and clinically extremely vulnerable individuals
- all those 65 years of age and over
- all individuals aged 16 years to 64 years with underlying health conditions which put them at higher risk of serious disease and mortality
- all those 60 years of age and over
- all those 55 years of age and over
- all those 50 years of age and over