Disabled people left off coronavirus vulnerable list go without food
Large numbers excluded from government’s food delivery scheme due to strict criteria
Disabled people are being left without food after being missed off the government’s list of those vulnerable to coronavirus, the Guardian has learned.
The government set up an online register billed as a way to reach “extremely vulnerable” households in England who have been told to shield for 12 weeks – either offering them food parcels via their local authority or liaising with major supermarkets to give priority for online delivery.
But it has emerged that large numbers of disabled and older people are being excluded from the scheme due to the highly selective criteria.
One hundred people with severe disabilities and chronic illness say they have been rejected for the government’s register and thereby left without any support to access food without leaving their home, despite being particularly vulnerable to coronavirus.
Their conditions include cancer being treated with chemotherapy, heart disease, tetraplegia, motor neurone disease (MND), myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME) and muscular dystrophy. Some disabled people reported sleeping to avoid hunger pains, or living off fruit. At least one rejected for assistance has gone on to contract coronavirus.
“I’ve had four letters to say I should be shielding yet the Gov.uk site doesn’t recognise me to be put on the online vulnerable list,” said 40-year-old Vicky McDermott in Northumberland, who has the immune disorder rheumatoid arthritis and a daughter with a life-limiting condition who has also been told to shield.
“I tried registering last night for the fifth time. The supermarkets won’t put us on the priority list as we’re not registered with the government.”
McDermott has resorted to buying food from “online corner shops” with a large markup. “A tin of beans is £2,” she said.
Deborah Bhatti, 50, from Bury in Greater Manchester, is on 40 medications a day including for asthma and autoimmune disease, but has not made the list. It means she is not eligible for her local council’s scheme to collect prescriptions or give out food parcels. “I had to share a tin of tuna with my cat,” Bhatti said. “I feel desperate and fearful and have bad dreams every night.”
The Department for Health and Social Care said there was a short delay between people being identified as clinically extremely vulnerable by their GP, and receiving the NHS letter from their clinician, and their identity being pulled from GP records to enable them to register for support. It added it was updating the patient list that enables people to register for support from GP records on a weekly basis.
But both doctors and patients report confusion over how this is being handled. When Denise Stephens, 41, who has multiple sclerosis and is immunocompromised, was rejected, she followed instructions to call her GP but hit a brick wall. “My GP said they couldn’t help me and they didn’t know why the government is directing people to them about this,” she said. Last month, Stephens contracted coronavirus. She has had to call an ambulance twice to her London home but is still not eligible for help with food or medication.
In recent days, the government’s website has begun to allow some people to add their details even if they do not meet the criteria, but charities say this is not enough to stop people missing out.
“We’re hearing from people that their GP won’t put them on the list after they tried to self-register as MND isn’t listed,” said Susie Rabin, the head of policy and campaigns for the MND Association. “I’ve seen responses from MPs to people saying that not everyone with MND needs to be in the list as ‘some may have a mild form’. I’ve never seen a mild form of a terminal illness.”
The charity WellChild estimates many of the 100,000 children and young people with serious medical conditions in the UK do not meet the criteria for the extremely vulnerable list.
There are also concerns the government is excluding people whose disability means they cannot physically distance safely at supermarkets, such as those with sight loss or autism. One woman with autism and mental health problems, who is self-isolating, said she had lost her carer who helps her shop but still did not make the vulnerable list. “I’m absolutely terrified I’ll be dying of starvation in the coming weeks,” she said.