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For disabled people, the hasty lifting of all plan B restrictions is devastating | Anne Wafula Strike


From the very beginning of the pandemic, disabled people have been treated as an add-on. See, for example, how deaf people were ignored in Downing Street’s vital public health messaging, with no British Sign Language interpreter used in daily briefings. Those with intellectual and development disabilities were initially not on the priority list for vaccines, despite being five times more at risk of hospitalisation and eight times more likely to die from Covid.

I am a survivor of polio, a crippling disease that is preventable by a vaccine – which was one reason that my Covid jab felt like an early Christmas present. As a Paralympian and a campaigner for access and inclusion, it has been incredibly frustrating to see a clinically vulnerable group being treated as an afterthought, or even as apparently undeserving of medical treatment.

In early 2021, the charity Mencap warned that some disabled people were receiving letters saying they would not be resuscitated if they became ill with Covid-19, after “do not resuscitate” orders were illegally placed on some disabled patients during the first wave. This horrified me. In this and so many other ways, the Covid-19 pandemic has widened and deepened the exclusion of people with disabilities, and given the world a taste of how quickly a marginalised group can fall off a country’s agenda and become almost invisible.

I have felt the same pain this week, as preparations were made to end all plan B measures on Wednesday – including wearing masks on public transport and guidance to work from home. I watched the prime minister announce this last week as he tried to save his own career after apparently flouting the lockdown restrictions he put in place to keep the most vulnerable safe. His announcement was met with cheers in the House of Commons; on my television at home, it was met with horror. My first thought was of my clinically vulnerable friends, many of whom have barely left their homes in two years. Catching Covid could still be very dangerous even after being vaccinated, and those who are immunocompromised may not respond to vaccines at all. Yet again, they have been sacrificed at the altar of political expediency.

On the day the prime minister made his announcement, there were more than 100,000 confirmed Covid cases in England and nearly 19,000 people in hospital with Covid. This is an illness that has already claimed the lives of tens of thousands of disabled people like me; six out of 10 Covid deaths in England have been those of us with disabilities. Promised antiviral drugs that could help vulnerable people fight the virus have been slow to appear.

Yet despite the enormous risk, we have now been told that we should return to work in person. Our children must now go to school, and may well be expected to do so without masks, knowing that alongside their homework, they could bring back a virus that could devastate our health. If we want to use public transport or go to the shops, we cannot now expect others to wear masks to help protect us. I went into a supermarket before restrictions lifted and was appalled that there were so many people not wearing their mask. It makes me very sad to see just how quickly we have forgotten what we’ve been through.

My friend and fellow disability campaigner, the GP Dr Hannah Barham-Brown, spoke to me after the announcement, rightly describing this government as one that has prioritised “vino over vulnerability”. This latest escapade “laughs in the faces of the disabled community, and the health and social care staff who care for them”.

Imagine how it feels to be stuck in the house for two years with little or no social contact because of your disability or vulnerability. The only human you have interacted with was your carer, the person delivering post or food, and an occasional wave through the window to family members. Disabled and clinically vulnerable people may now remain prisoners in their own homes. A caring society would have made this group a priority and considered their needs when planning to lift the restrictions.

We all want to return to normal. It’s why so many of us have followed the guidelines around mask-wearing, social distancing, self-isolating and shielding. It’s because we want to get through the pandemic and return to freely hugging our loved ones, travelling without fear of getting infected in transit, and also throwing and attending parties.

We are told we need to live with Covid in the long term. But living with this virus should not mean putting the lives of our most vulnerable at significant risk, especially at a time when the Omicron variant has led to such high rates of infection. If this hasty lifting of all plan B restrictions is a political decision to save one politician’s career rather than a decision based on science, data and evidence, it must be reconsidered. Lives are at stake if it is not.

  • Anne Wafula Strike MBE is a British Paralympian, disability and inclusion campaigner, and sporting ambassador



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