People with learning disabilities were as much as six times more likely to die from coronavirus over the first wave of the pandemic, according to new analysis.
A study by Public Health England (PHE) found that people with learning disabilities were on average between 4.1 and 6.3 times more likely to die after contracting Covid-19. Of those people, the demographic aged 18 to 34 were 30 times more likely to die than people of the same age who did not have learning disabilities.
Director of health improvement for PHE, Professor John Newton, described the findings as “deeply troubling” and said, “We must do everything possible to prevent this happening again.”
The study found that 451 per 100,000 people registered as having a learning disability died with coronavirus between 21 March and 5 June 2020.
However, this is thought to be an underestimation, due to deaths not being registered correctly. Researchers estimate the real figure may have been as much as 692 per 100,000 - 6.3 times higher than the general population.
Why is the death rate higher for people with disabilities?
The study said that people with learning difficulties are more likely to struggle to identify and recognise Covid symptoms, as well as following general advice around social distancing and testing. It may be harder for carers to recognise symptoms if these cannot be communicated, it added.
Head of policy at learning disability charity Mencap, Dan Scorer, said, “The Government has failed to protect some of our most vulnerable citizens.
“Decades of underinvestment in social care has left most people with a learning disability with no support to understand ever-changing guidance on staying safe and accessing testing.
“This - combined with the closure of the NHS for all but the most urgent care - has clearly had a devastating impact on people with a learning disability, and exacerbated already shocking levels of premature death and health inequalities.
“The forthcoming inquiry into the handling of the pandemic must look closely at why so many people with a learning disability died from Covid-19 and what should have been done differently.”
What is being done?
A review of the findings has been announced by social care minister, Helen Whately.
She said, “I know how difficult this pandemic has been for people with a learning disability and those who care for them.
“A third of those with learning disabilities who sadly died were living in residential care. There is now regular testing of staff and residents in care homes, and testing has also been rolled out to supported living settings in high risk areas.
“We’re also offering free PPE (personal protective equipment), and the joint committee on vaccines and immunisation has proposed those living and working in care homes should be top of the list for vaccination.”