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Covid-19: People with Learning Difficulties and Autism

Volume 806: debated on Monday 5 October 2020

Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what provisions they have put in place to meet the needs of those with learning difficulties and autism during the COVID-19 pandemic.

My Lords, we recognise that the pandemic presents serious risks and challenges for people with a learning disability and autistic people. That is why we have increased provision of PPE and testing in social care, we have enabled access to NHS volunteer responder schemes and we have developed tailored guidance informed by stakeholders. We have made reasonable adjustments to policies and funded charities with more than £1 million to provide support. The winter plan outlines work to protect all areas of people who need care.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. He will appreciate that, as he said, people suffering from learning difficulties have particular problems when isolated by the pandemic—terrible loneliness, depression and challenging behaviour. Their families and many agencies, such as Mencap, the National Autistic Society and Care England, feel that government oversight and greater enforcement of existing provisions are needed. Will the Minister draw attention to the urgency of this need?

My Lords, the noble Baroness puts it extremely well, and it is an area we are deeply concerned about. We have commissioned Public Health England to carry out an analysis of the existing data on those who have suffered under Covid. We will be reviewing that data extremely carefully to understand the phenomenon more deeply. In the meantime, the Chancellor has announced £750 million to support the charity sector in response to the pandemic. Some of that money has been targeted specifically at charities that are supporting those with learning difficulties to ensure that they get the support that they need.

My Lords, many families really struggled to get effective support or even to know where to go to find out what is available. I understand that evidence gathered by concerned charities like Carers UK and Carers Trust shows that many family carers have had no effective support or advice since the end of March, yet they look after some of the most vulnerable in our society. Will the Minister and his colleagues at the Department of Health and Social Care meet with these organisations to discuss what could be done to improve this very sad state of affairs?

My Lords, I would like to pay tribute to the work of the learning disability and autism advisory group for its social care task force. Its recommendations have informed the development of the social care winter plan, which provides specific provisions for those with learning disabilities and autism. I would be very glad to meet whichever groups the noble Baroness recommends, because this is an important issue that we care about immensely and are determined to get right.

My Lords, I draw attention to my registered interest as a vice-president of Mencap. Does the Minister recognise the challenges facing many parent carers of people with a learning disability who are older people, who often themselves are having to shield during lockdown? What are the Government doing specifically to ensure such households have the support they need as we enter the second wave of Covid this autumn?

My Lords, the role of any carer is one that we should applaud and pay tribute to, for they are often the overlooked supporters of those with learning difficulties and autism. The plight of those families during Covid has been very hard, and we recognise the tough challenges faced by older parents in particular, who have big responsibilities for children with learning difficulties. The main support will be through local government, and we have put through a huge amount of finance to local authorities and charities to support those families. The adult winter plan has £500 million for the infection control fund, and the NHS has £588 million to support those who are moving from one part of care to another. We will continue this financial support in this area.

My Lords, I declare an interest as the father of an autistic daughter. Can the Minister say when clear guidance will be provided to day centres for the disabled, and when we can expect they will reopen?

My Lords, the guidance for day centres in particular is not something I know the specific date for, but I would be glad to take my noble friend’s question back to the department and seek a date, as he asks. We all wish for day centres to be open, but keeping infection control in day centres for those with learning disabilities and autism is extremely challenging, and our primary concern is the safety and protection of children. Therefore, we have to weigh those considerations with the natural pastoral concerns and the contribution of day centres to the care of children.

My Lords, the lockdown has led to distress for many autistic children due to different routines and limited social interaction outside the family. Many have found returning to school difficult. The National Autistic Society has recommended that schools provide all autistic children with a personalised transition plan to help with their return to school. Has this been happening?

The noble Baroness puts the plight of those with autism extremely well. Who could not feel sympathy for those with special needs and autistic sensibilities, with the distress and trauma of changes and the unfamiliarity of the Covid regime? I do not know the precise status of a personal plan for all those transitioning back to school, but I would be glad to inquire back at the department and write to the noble Baroness with a reply.

My Lords, prior to the pandemic, the Social Metrics Commission’s report found that half of all people in poverty live in a family that includes a disabled adult or child. Given that education is one of the key drivers to transitioning out of poverty, could my noble friend outline the work he has been doing with the Department for Education and the Department of Health to address the skills and education gap created by Covid for disabled children who have special educational needs and to ensure that these children’s needs are the focus of any pandemic measures in the coming months?

My noble friend Lady Stroud speaks very movingly of the tough figures around the prevalence of disability among those in poverty. I completely take on board her recommendations about training in education. The Prime Minister spoke last week about the opportunity that Covid presents for a reboot around skills. That reboot will include provisions for those with learning difficulties and disabilities. I would be glad to inquire at the department exactly how developed those plans are and to update the noble Baroness with the information that I have back at the department.

My Lords, a ministerial response in the other place last week stated that only some supported living settings would be able to access asymptomatic testing. People with learning disabilities have had excess death rates higher than over-65 year-old care home residents, and many live in supported living settings. When do the Government intend to extend regular asymptomatic testing to all supported living settings, where the majority are still effectively shielding, and thus perhaps also enable day centres to open?

We are seeking to extend asymptomatic testing as widely as we possibly can and as soon as we possibly can. At the moment, our focus for testing is on residential social care, where we have committed to 100,000 tests a day. That is where the greatest threat comes from. But as the number and range of tests increase, we hope to be able to roll out asymptomatic testing to a much broader set of user cases, and the kind of care centres that she describes will surely be near the top of the list.

My Lords, figures from the CQC show that there has been a 175% increase in unexpected deaths among learning disabled and autistic people during the pandemic. The Cabinet Office’s disability unit, which is charged with developing the national strategy for disabled people, has been silent so far. Does the Minister agree that, rather than Covid-19 necessitating delays for a national disability strategy, the impact of the crisis on disabled people makes its publication all the more vital? When will the national disability strategy be published?

My Lords, let me clarify with an update on the numbers. As of 25 September 2020, 690 deaths from Covid of people with learning disabilities have been reported to the leader programme since 16 March. We have commissioned Public Health England to carry out additional analysis of the existing data, which will be published as soon as it is completed. We are not trying to hide from this issue. Covid has raised very serious questions about the impact of a pandemic on those with learning difficulties, who are often more susceptible to disease and mortality than others. We absolutely accept the challenge of figuring out how to protect the most vulnerable in our society. Therefore, we will embrace the opportunity to take these learnings and put them into a disability report at some point in the future.