Serial failures in the healthcare system led to the deaths of hundreds of people with learning disabilities during the coronavirus pandemic, a palliative care expert has said.
The statement follows a Public Health England report, published last week, which shows that people with learning disabilities are 6.3 times more likely to die from coronavirus than the rest of the population.
The report also revealed that young adults, aged 18 to 34, with learning disabilities are 30 times more likely to die of COVID-19 than those without.
Professor Irene Tuffrey-Wijne (pictured), the world’s first professor of palliative care for people with learning disabilities, said these figures highlight just how vulnerable people with learning disabilities are during the pandemic, and has called for urgent action.
“At the start of the pandemic, families and learning disability services tried to draw attention to the fact people with learning disabilities were going to be so much more vulnerable to the effects of the pandemic,” she said. “Devastatingly, this has been made even worse by the lack of support given to them.”
Professor Tuffrey-Wijne, who’s based at Kington University and St George’s, University of London, believes more assistance was needed to help people with learning disabilities cope with and understand lockdown restrictions, and that they should have had access to regular testing.
Shortages in the availability of PPE for healthcare staff at the start of COVID-19 was also among the causes of the death rate among this demographic, Professor Tuffrey-Wijne said.
“It highlights serial failures in the healthcare system,” she added. “We’ve seen problems around testing and PPE at the beginning of the pandemic where the response was slow and these weren’t addressed quickly enough.”
Professor Tuffrey-Wijne is calling on the UK government to prioritise people with learning disabilities when rolling out a COVID-19 vaccine and has urged immediate action on two other points.
“There needs to be regular testing for those with learning disabilities, even if they are asymptomatic, and the staff that look after them and their families,” she said. “There also needs to be sufficient funding, support and resources for staff, families and learning disability services so that one of the most vulnerable groups in society can be looked after during what is a difficult and worrying time.”
Professor Tuffrey-Wijne also questioned why the Public Health England report was being released now, when some of the figures had been available earlier in the year, but said she hoped its publication would accelerate the process of supporting so many people.
“There are more than 1.5 million people in the UK with learning disabilities, so this review has to be looked at and actions have to come out of it – it would be absolutely devastating if this got ignored and shelved,” she said.