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Learning disability campaigners welcome Government U-turn on priority access to Covid vaccine


By Jess Hacker
25 February 2021

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Learning disability campaigners have welcomed the Government’s U-turn on priority access to the Covid-19 vaccine for all adults with learning disabilities.

The Government announced on Wednesday (24 February) that GPs should now invite all patients on the learning disability register for Covid vaccination as part of priority group six.

NHS England previously advised GPs to use ‘clinical discretion’ to identify patients with severe learning disability eligible for the jab.

The Government said the latest move was ‘not a change’ in the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation’s (JCVI) existing advice, which currently places only those with ‘severe’ and ‘profound’ learning disabilities in the sixth cohort, but instead an ‘operational clarification’ to ensure those who are eligible receive their vaccination.

It will however mean ‘at least 150,000 more people with learning disabilities’ will now be offered the vaccine more quickly, according to Public Health England.

Gary Bourlet, membership and engagement lead at Learning Disability England, said the announcement was ‘fantastic news’ and ‘a long time coming’.

‘This will give people more freedom and is a big relief for many people, including their family, friends and supporters,’ he said.

‘It is really important people with learning disabilities are not forgotten and it is the successful campaigning, by so many people like this, that makes sure that does not happen.’

Jackie O’Sullivan, executive director of communication, advocacy and activism at learning disability charity Mencap, also welcomed the announcement.  

‘It’s now crucially important that everyone with a learning disability checks that they are on the register and asks to go on it if they are not,’ she said.

‘Being on the register has many benefits and entitles people to annual health checks and prioritisation for future vaccinations, as well as allowing them to get the Covid vaccine and be confident they are protected.’

Legal challenge

This comes after learning disability groups have campaigned for weeks for greater priority to the vaccine, and after a legal challenge was launched against the Government over the issue.

Bindmans LLP issued the proceedings last month on behalf of a mother and daughter in a bid to secure access to the vaccine for all adults with learning disabilities.

The firm said in a statement last week that the Government had responded to the claim and ‘did not accept’ that priority access should be granted to all people with learning disabilities.

Commenting on the latest development, Elizabeth Cleaver, solicitor at Bindmans LLP, said: ‘We are delighted that following our legal action on this issue, and recent press attention, the JCVI have recommended that all people with learning disabilities should have priority access to the vaccine.

‘The previous prioritisation scheme was not workable, as GPs were not able to accurately identify which patients with learning disabilities fell into the relevant priority groups.’

She added: ‘The previous scheme also failed to recognise that all individuals with learning disabilities are at increased risk of dying from Covid-19. This decision will enable 150,000 people with learning disabilities to have greater priority access to the vaccine, which is a step towards addressing the health inequalities faced by this group during the pandemic.’

‘The right decision’

NHS England previously advised GPs on how to identify eligible patients with learning disabilities for vaccination in a letter sent earlier this month.

In the letter to vaccination sites, it also acknowledged that there may still be people who are not on GP learning disability registers and said the NHS needs to make ‘an extra effort to put this right’.

Under the JCVI’s latest advice, those who are ‘severely affected’ by a learning disability but who may not yet be registered should be identified.

Dr Richard Vautrey, GPC chair at the BMA, said the JCVI’s decision to prioritise patients with learning disabilities was ‘the right one’ and ‘vital’. 

He added: ‘The Government must also ensure that everything is done to encourage patients with learning disabilities to come forward for their vaccine, with appropriately tailored communications and information so that they have equitable access to the necessary care.

‘GPs and their teams are working incredibly hard to deliver the vaccine, and will apply the same determination to this new priority cohort of patients. It’s important that practices are informed of this latest development and properly resourced if this decision requires additional dedicated work.’

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