All adults on the learning disability register will be prioritised to get a coronavirus vaccine, the Government has announced, following calls from BBC presenter Jo Whiley and charities.
People with severe and profound learning disabilities were already part of group six – adults aged 16-64 with underlying health conditions – but care minister Helen Whately has confirmed all people on the GP learning disability register will now be invited for a vaccine as part of this group.
Charities and care providers welcomed the move, calling it a “crucial victory” for people with learning disabilities and their families.
The change comes after a recommendation from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI).
The JCVI said GP systems may not always capture the severity of someone’s disability, meaning some adults more severely affected by learning disabilities may not have been previously invited along with others in group six.
Recent analysis for the JCVI showed a higher risk of mortality and morbidity in those on the GP register with learning disabilities.
A report by Public Health England in November found that people with learning disabilities were up to six times more likely to die with coronavirus.
Whiley has previously questioned why she was offered the vaccine before her sister Frances, who has the rare Cri du Chat genetic syndrome and was recently in hospital with Covid-19.
She tweeted she was “crying with joy” at the news and told the BBC: “This is a great day – I am so relieved, I’m so happy for all those people who’ve been living in fear.
“I’m very grateful to the Government for listening, because it’s a very complicated situation and it’s very difficult to categorise people according to their disability, it’s very, very tricky and that’s become apparent, I think, over the past few months.
“This is clear, this encompasses everybody, and all those people who have been feeling very neglected, feeling like they don’t matter, that we don’t care, now know that we will be protecting them.
“This is absolutely crucial and I could not be more delighted. This is a massive step forward.”
The JCVI has also called for the NHS to work with local authorities to identify adults in residential and nursing care, and those who require support in the community, who may not be registered.
This will mean at least 150,000 more people with learning disabilities will now be offered the vaccine more quickly, it said.
Whiley said her family feared they would lose Frances a few days ago, but she came home from hospital on Tuesday and has got her appetite back.
She added: “This is the first step in her recovery, it’s going to be hard work from here on in, but she’s doing great.”
She appealed for people not to delay if they have a loved one with a learning disability who is not on the GP register, adding: “I think now attention has been shown on these people, on your situation. So pick up the phone today, call the surgery, just make yourself known, make the person that you care for, you love, known, and you will get vaccination.”
Professor Anthony Harden, JCVI deputy chairman, acknowledged that leaving it to local health authorities to determine which people had more severe learning disabilities in their areas had led to some inequalities in the rollout.
He told the Science and Technology Committee that letting local leaders decide was “the most straightforward way” but added: “I do accept that has led to some inequalities throughout the country.”
Professor Wei Shen Lim, JCVI Covid-19 chairman, said: “The JCVI’s advice on Covid-19 vaccine prioritisation was developed with the aim of preventing as many deaths as possible.
“People who are severely affected by learning disabilities are at higher risk of death from Covid-19.
“As the severity of any disability may not be well recorded in GP systems, JCVI supports the NHS operational plan for anyone on the GP learning disability register to be invited now for vaccination as part of priority group six, and to reach out in the community to identify others also severely affected by a learning disability but who may not yet be registered.
”The JCVI will continue to consider the emerging evidence and will keep its advice under review.”
Health Secretary Matt Hancock said he has asked the NHS to implement the advice “immediately”.
The charity Mencap, which has been calling on the Government to prioritise all people with a learning disability for the vaccine since the end of last year, said it was “fantastic news”.
Jackie O’Sullivan, executive director of communication, advocacy and activism, said people must check if they are on the register and ask to go on it if they are not.
She added: “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.”
Steve Scown, chief executive of not-for-profit support provider Dimensions, said the news will “mean peace of mind and a quicker return to normality for thousands of individuals and their families across the country, who have already experienced greater anxiety than most throughout this time”.
Dr Rhidian Hughes, chief executive of the Voluntary Organisations Disability Group (VODG), said: “Today’s announcement will be of great relief to many families, but we must also hope that this has been a lesson in listening for the Government and it will finally commit to an inclusive and equitable approach in its Covid-19 policy responses for everyone with a disability, especially given that we know disabled people have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic.”