'People with learning disabilities left behind in NHS backlog plan'

Health Secretary Sajid Javid (centre) during a visit to the Mile End Diagnostics Centre, east London

Savid Javid announced plans to tackle the NHS backlog during a visit to the Mile End Diagnostics Centre, east London - Credit: PA

People with learning disabilities, who suffered high levels of death and disease as a result of the Covid pandemic, now face being left behind in plans to tackle the backlog of NHS care.

Even before Covid struck, people with learning disabilities were at twice the risk of avoidable death as the rest of the population and faced 25 years’ less life expectancy. According to a major study based on GP records and published in the BMJ last summer, people with learning disabilities were "extremely vulnerable" to the effects of Covid during the first wave of the pandemic. They were five times more likely to be admitted to hospital and eight times more likely to die than other patients.

Mary Langan. Picture: Luke Dixon

Mary Langan quotes research that says people with learning disabilities are being left behind in plans to tackle NHS backlog - Credit: Luke Patrick Dixon Photography

Commenting on this study, Haringey psychiatrist Ken Courtenay of the Royal College of Psychiatrists and Vivien Cooper of the Challenging Behaviour Foundation described the impact of Covid as a "hidden calamity" and recommended "reasonable adjustments to ensure that information about the pandemic and risk of infection are accessible and practical support is provided to protect people and manage risks". They also drew attention to "worrying attitudes and prejudices" that resulted in the Covid vaccination programme being rolled out according to age rather than clinical need.

Their insistence that "people with learning disabilities have the same rights as everyone else" retains its importance in relation to the "delivery plan for tackling the Covid-19 backlog of elective care" launched last week by the NHS chief executive Amanda Pritchard and health secretary Sajid Javid. Last summer the Calderdale and Huddersfield Foundation Trust, recognising the health inequalities facing people with learning disabilities (and ethnic minority patients), announced plans to prioritise these groups in proposals to expedite elective surgery and reduce waiting lists.

Yet, despite calls from Mencap and Learning Disability Today that other trusts should follow this pioneering lead from Yorkshire, this does not seem to have occurred. The new "delivery plan" includes no specific measures to improve access to health care, including screening tests, operations and other treatments, for people with learning disabilities. Once again it seems that the most vulnerable are being consigned to the back of the queue.

Mary Langan is chair of Severe and Complex Needs Families Group.