COVID-19 spotlights a need for change

Our Chief Executive, Lesslie Young, looks at how the lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic must be used to address the inequalities faced by people with learning disabilities.

The national rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine programme provides a light at the end of a long tunnel and more than a modicum of hope, if not for all, for many.

However, the reality is the need for caution remains high. It is now more important than ever to consider how the pandemic is affecting those around us.

COVID-19 has, and continues, to impact different groups disproportionately, creating and deepening already existing health inequalities.

By health inequalities, I am referring to the avoidable, systematic, and unjust differences in healthcare between different groups of people.


Learning disability and COVID-19

One such group disproportionately affected by the pandemic is people with learning disabilities.

Research recently published by the Scottish Learning Disabilities Observatory revealed people with learning disabilities were more than three times more likely to die from COVID-19 compared to the general population.

Moreover, when compared with the general population, people with learning disabilities were twice as likely to become infected with COVID-19, and twice as likely to experience a severe outcome of COVID-19, resulting in hospitalisation and / or death.

This inequality extends well beyond the immediate health impacts associated with COVID-19 infection.

Because of continued lockdowns, vital support services have been cancelled or reduced, which has the potential to cause irreversible harm to those reliant on these services. Equally, it begs the question about how they are to be fully re-instated.


COVID-19 must not shoulder the blame

It is vital we do more than simply recognise the health inequalities faced by those with learning disabilities.

This is not new, nor is it a result of COVID-19. The impact of COVID-19 on people with learning disabilities and how they have been treated reflects years of systematic neglect evidenced by lack of sustained policy and year on year funding cuts.

This is not a person centred or equity of access approach, but one that simply focusses on the financial bottom line. It also demonstrates a short sightedness in planning and contradicts the invest now and save later message often given.

These cuts and the short-term planning have led to a critical shortage of essential support services for people with learning disabilities.

The pandemic is not the cause. It has only served to highlight years of underfunding and lack of support of a large, vulnerable group of people.

That is not acceptable and cannot be allowed to continue.


An opportunity for change

As with every challenge, there is opportunity. The lessons learned from the pandemic must be used to address the inequalities faced by people with learning disabilities.

We welcome the Scottish Government changing their course of vaccination in response to calls to include all people with learning disabilities in priority group 6, not just those with severe or profound learning disability.

However, the disproportionate impact of the pandemic has highlighted what many have been calling for decades – the critical need for systematic change.

The Independent Review of Adult Social Care published at the start of February signals a potential shift in thinking and approach to social care. The review has made several recommendations for improvements to adult social care in Scotland.

The idea of building a National Care Service, to stand alongside the NHS, could mark a momentous turning point. It cannot be allowed to become another time-consuming paper exercise with no positive outcomes for those it is meant to serve.

There is already evidence in abundance to start the process of change now. Many people with learning difficulties do not have years to wait for the support and quality of life they not only deserve but are entitled to.


Looking to the future

For too long people with learning disabilities have been neglected, with obvious health inequalities ignored by decision makers.

COVID-19 offers an opportunity to shift the narrative. By using the demonstratable impact of the pandemic we can further strengthen our argument, advocating for the need for systematic change.

The recommendations made in the Independent Review of Adult Social Care are the ticket to improving the lives of people living with learning disabilities who rely on social care for support.

The Scottish Government must seize this opportunity and make these recommendations a reality.

With cautious optimism, we welcome this long overdue motion for change.