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UK government 'may have broken international law' over treatment of disabled people in coronavirus pandemic

Mhari Aurora
·3-min read

Watch: Boris Johnson and Sir Edward Davey during PMQ’s in the House of Commons

Boris Johnson has been accused of potentially breaking international law affecting the care disabled people have received since the coronavirus pandemic began.

Speaking in the House of Commons, Ed Davey, the newly elected Liberal Democrat leader, said the rights of disabled people had been reduced during the crisis.

He said: "Research by the Disabled Children's Partnership shows that three-quarters of families with disabled children had their care support stopped during lockdown.

"The Coronavirus Act is partly to blame as it relaxed the duties to asses and meet the needs of disabled people.

"As a father of a disabled child and the patron of the Disability Law Service, I have seen legal advice that suggests that this government broke international law in how the Coronavirus Act reduced the rights of disabled people."

Boris Johnson said he was not aware of this concern.

He said: "I am not aware of that particular allegation about the legal effect of the Coronavirus Act and I would be only too happy to write to him shortly to clarify the matter.

‘Protect the rights of disabled people’

David Laurence, chief executive of the Disability Law Service, said the rights for disabled people had plunged to “unacceptably low levels”.

He warned: “In certain circumstances the Coronavirus Act reduces the rights of disabled people to receive care to unacceptably low levels – in doing so, it breaches the United Kingdom’s Treaty Obligations under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson listens to Deputy Labour leader Angela Rayner during Prime Minister's Questions in the House of Commons, London.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been accused of breaking international law, reducing the rights of disabled people in the UK.

“As we face the risk of a second wave of the pandemic, Disability Law Service calls on the government to think again and ensure that it lawfully protects the rights of disabled people.”

MPs such as Davey have previously called for greater scrutiny of government policy relating to the pandemic. Emergency powers have been introduced by the government without parliamentary scrutiny and debate.

In a letter to the Prime Minister today, Mr Davey wrote: “The Government’s 348-page Coronavirus Act was passed in March with just one day of debate in the House of Commons, two days in the Lords, and no votes in either House.

“Many of the powers in the Act have serious implications for people’s wellbeing, rights and freedoms – such as the relaxation of duties on local authorities to assess and meet people’s care needs and the extra powers for police and immigration officers to detain people.”

In March, legal experts expressed concerns about the speed at which the law was passed and Labour MP Clive Lewis, told the Guardian: “This pandemic should not be used as cover for what could be described as an executive coup. There are real concerns about our right to protest through to care for the disabled.”

Earlier this month, the Institute for Government urged the government to stop using emergency procedures to bring in new laws, unless it can “convincingly argue that the circumstances are truly urgent”.

Disabled people excluded

The warning comes after campaigners said the pandemic has exposed existing inequalities in the UK and “excluded” disabled people from society.

According to the Greater Manchester Disabled People’s Panel Big Disability Survey in July, 76% of the 677 people surveyed said they were dissatisfied with the help provided by the government.

A third said they felt neglected by the government, citing a reduction in the number of health visits; a deterioration in their mental health; and difficulty sourcing personal protective equipment as reasons for their frustration.

When fully adjusted for factors such as occupation, region, area deprivation and socio-economic position, the data found that “limited a lot” disabled women are still 2.4 times more likely to die of coronavirus than non-disabled women, and “limited a lot” disabled men are 1.9 times more likely to die than non-disabled men.