When the Coronavirus Bill was given royal assent on 25 March 2020, it radically transformed UK services and the rights of citizens. One particularly troubling element of this is the suspension of the Care Act 2014.
Jonathan Marron, Director General of Community and Social Care at the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) has said that suspensions like these will relieve the pressures put on local authorities. He outlined that it will help ‘focus’ their ‘resources’ on ‘ensuring the most serious and urgent care needs are met, and defer meeting some other, less acute or pressing needs’.
Disability Rights UK said that the amendments to the Act: “Are effectively rolling back 30 years of progress for disabled people”. Meanwhile, Simone Aspis, Director of the consultancy Changing Perspectives called the changes an: ”Ideological attack on disabled people’s rights to life and live independently”.
It is undeniable that through removing essential safeguarding mechanisms, the government has put thousands of lives at risk unnecessarily.
Ultimately, the bill suspends every duty under the Care Act 2014. So, local authorities do not have to conduct detailed assessments of people’s care and support needs. They are also no longer required to fulfil their duty to meet the needs of disabled people, under Section 18, or their carers under Section 20.
On top of this, they do not have to prepare or review support plans for disabled people within their communities.
The DHSC’s guidance outlines that the easements should only be implemented when the workforce is ‘significantly depleted’ or when it is ‘no longer reasonably practicable for it to comply with its Care Act duties’. However, this will be left up to the discretion of local authorities.
Local authorities will only be required to fulfil the obligations of the pre-amendment care provisions if it is determined that not fulfilling them would lead to a breach of The European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR).
However, an ad hoc group of specialist barristers assessing the bill, have stated this is not a sufficient safeguard. The group noted that the case law on breaches of ECHR in relation to social care has a high threshold, especially regarding Article 3 and Article 8.
Andie Gbedemah, Public Affairs Manager at autism charity Dimensions also raised issue with this. She stated that case law relating to the adult social care context: “Is very different and [gives] a lower quality of life than the ambition of the Care Act as it stands”.
In other words, a situation that breaches ECHR must be severe or critical. Clearly allowing neglect and deprivation of assistance to get to this stage is wholly unacceptable.
As a result, many are duly concerned that these easements, along with the already broken social care system, will cease to provide services to those who desperately need assistance.
Considering that The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME)’s projections now forecast that the UK will have the worst death toll in Europe, concerns over easements of the Act are well founded.
The government has even admitted within its impact assessment notes that vulnerable people will potentially be put at risk. The Summary of Impacts states: “These clauses could result in individuals not receiving support for some needs where local authorities judge that resources need to be focused on meeting the most acute and pressing needs”.
So, bearing in mind the virus is most harmful to those who are disabled, elderly or who have long-term health conditions, it is confusing that extra support has not been allocated to these groups.
Professor Peter Beresford, Co-Chair of Shaping Our Lives agreed when speaking to Disability News Service, and said that in fact: “The opposite has happened”. He added: “Generalised policies have been adopted and little specific attention has been paid to vulnerable groups except where they are already in health or institutional settings”.
Now, restrictions to social care, and withdrawal of services, means that thousands may be left without essential support.
The legal advice charity CASCAIDr has said that this, in combination with a shortage of workers capable of conducting a human rights assessment: “Is a recipe for turning social care into a dogfight for resources”.
Carolyne Willow, Director of children’s rights charity Article 39, agreed with this sentiment, and said that the charity considered “the sweeping removal of local authority duties” in the bill to be “disproportionate”.
Others have pointed to the nonsensical nature of easements by highlighting the already established link between ‘failure to meet care needs’ and added pressure on the NHS. This suggests that removing aid from the most vulnerable to relieve pressure on NHS, is fundamentally contradictory and counter-intuitive. In a Tweet, Jamie Burton, a barrister and chair of the human rights campaign Just Fair said: “Now does not seem like a good time to test that evidence”.
It is clear then, that instead of destabilising an already struggling system even on a temporary basis, more funding should be funnelled into services. This easement is sadly just another example of how the Coronavirus Bill is full of half-measures and erosion of rights. CASCAIDr summarised the situation perfectly: “It is not what the public deserves, having been told that the government will do whatever it takes”.