A grave threat to vulnerable people
Published by The i paper (23rd March, 2020)
Six years ago I landed in Liberia. My temperature was taken after leaving the plane, then I walked through an airport studded with signs saying ‘Ebola is real’. This was peak of that cruel epidemic, when desperate medics were pleading for international support. It felt strange as I took a taxi to my hotel, ate dinner and strolled around the streets, since it was hard not to look at people and wonder if they had the virus. Ahmed, my photographer, told me he had not touched his children in three months. ‘It’s because I love them so much – I want them to be safe. But it is hard, so hard.’
Now I practise social distancing again as we face pandemic here in my homeland, but it is the old and sick most at risk. The Prime Minister delivered a Mother’s Day warning against showing affection to elderly people. This new coronavirus, almost certainly another zoonotic disease that jumped from animals to humans, is far less deadly but more infectious than ebola. Travel bans seem pointless since it has hurtled already around the planet. As politicians take unprecedented steps to shut down society and strengthen health services, most scientists say we must rely now on building immunity or developing a vaccine.
Reading the headlines each day brings home with devastating force the fragility of our world as cosy assumptions are shattered so quickly. It has exposed strengths and flaws of politicians in charge at this time of terrible crisis. In Britain, sadly, Boris Johnson has made a bumbling mess of communications, which will cost lives. Yet only the most absurd or disingenuous characters doubt there is need for special measures. So this week, the House of Commons is expected to rubber-stamp an emergency bill handing the Government astonishing powers over the people.
Although instinctively protective of civil liberties, I do not quibble with the need for such legislation to strengthen public services, salvage the economy, shut schools and preserve order. Much of the proposed law makes perfect sense, such as postponing elections, empowering police to stop gatherings, streamlining medical recruitment and simplifying the handling of dead bodies, along with the emergency economic provisions (although more must be done to help the self-employed). Everything should be done to support the frontline doctors, nurses and carers – which is why Whitehall must also rapidly sort out its mess over delivery of protective gear and testing.
Ministers insist that their draconian measures will only be used ‘in extremis’, with a two-year time limit. Fair enough. Yet as we have seen in the past, not least with the ‘war on terror’, short-term laws made in haste have a nasty habit of hanging around on the statute book. Labour is right to demand a renewal vote every six months, if not more often. Despite the difficult circumstances, there should still be caution and proper scrutiny of a government’s plan to grab such vast powers.
The stated aim is to ‘safeguard essential services’. Yet I am queasy over the mental health provisions. Britain has resorted in recent years to locking up more and more people with psychiatric problems due to risk-aversion and austerity, a highly-toxic combination in mental health. Now we see suddenly an immense pressure on jobs, finances, families and relationships, which will result in the explosion of new cases.
Despite recent scandals over abuse and torturous detention of people with autism, learning disabilities and mental health issues – often by dismal private firms – the Bill would make it much easier to lock up and sedate patients. Detention could be at the behest of a single psychiatrist – and they could be employed by appalling and profit-chasing providers. This is simply wrong, given the impact.
Even more alarming are implications for people in need of care. This community has been ignored in the Covid-19 crisis, showing again its shocking irrelevance to wider society. Many are among the 1.5 million citizens set to receive a government letter telling them to stay home alone – yet where is the guidance, help or protection for thousands of high-risk individuals like my daughter whose lives depend on others for daily life?
‘Here in Spain they were among the first to be given reassurances, yet there has been only silence in Britain,’ said Alicia Wood, a former British health department adviser currently under Spanish lockdown. ‘It is striking and shameful.’
Now comes a Bill that threatens to undo bitterly fought advances made by people with autism and disabilities over the past three decades. It strips away their right to support at a time of extreme stress when they and their families might need it most. It may send more people with autism and learning disabilities into inappropriate institutions and could end up sparking more pressure on the system by sending vulnerable citizens into crisis.
To give one example: a lawyer told me of a case involving a primary school pupil with autism who has one-to-care in the classroom and a support worker happy to shift into the home – yet the local authority may now stop funding it. The legacy could be one more child spiralling into crisis who ends up drugged like a zombie and locked in a lonely asylum cell, his life wrecked.
My charitable thought is that this chunk of the Bill was drawn up by an intern, since everyone else in the health department was frantic. Certainly it is hard to see much logic behind measures that alarm an already frightened group of forgotten citizens – even before doctors must start deciding who will live and die in their overflowing intensive care units.
Britain is confronting chaos and carnage. But for all the noble talk of guarding vulnerable people, the lives and rights of some of the citizens most in need of protection are being swept aside in the panic over this pandemic.