Straight Talk

Caroline Waters OBE of the Equality and Human Rights Commission explains why now more than ever is the time for us to show we care about those living in care.

As the nights draw in and the number of COVID-19 positive tests seems to be ticking ever upwards, I don’t think many of us doubt that we are in for a long and challenging winter. That’s why we need to urgently take action to safeguard the rights of people who live in residential care.

Many of the decisions in the coronavirus response raise serious questions about the value we place on older and disabled people’s lives.

Older and disabled people were known to be at high-risk from COVID-19 but the ‘protective ring’ around care homes doesn’t seem to have delivered for them. People who live in these settings have felt the impact of the pandemic in every aspect of their daily lives. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that the way in which we treat these individuals is an indication of how compassionate and progressive our society is, and this is especially true in times of crisis.

We can act now to demonstrate how much we value the lives of care home residents. We have recently shared detailed briefings on Equality and human rights in residential care in England and Wales during coronavirus, which are being published alongside our snapshot report into How coronavirus has affected equality and human rights in Britain. These can be accessed from the Equality and Human Rights Commission website.

We are asking national and local governments, regulators and care providers to ensure that equality and human rights laws are at the heart of decision-making. These laws set out obligations to protect people’s lives, dignity, wellbeing and freedoms, and in the current situation, they are more vital than ever. In challenging times when difficult decisions must be made, human rights laws are an essential and helpful framework to guide difficult decisions and protect those we care about.

So, what does this mean? Well, it means that policies that may have an uneven impact on people with a protected characteristic (like old age or disability) must involve a careful assessment and mitigation of this impact. I’m concerned to hear that there is scant evidence to show how the response to COVID-19 relating to care home residents was agreed and whether the equality and human rights impact was considered. Local and national governments must consider the impact of their decisions in the COVID-19 response on care home residents with different protected characteristics and be in a position to demonstrate how they have done this.

Blanket bans on visits from loved ones need to be replaced by individual risk assessments which consider the full range of human rights of care home residents and treat people like the individuals they are.

‘Do not attempt resuscitation’ orders which may have been issued en-masse in the Spring need to be urgently revisited, discussed with residents or their family members and, if appropriate, removed from files. Whilst the NHS was severely stretched in the early days of the pandemic, decisions on withholding access to medical treatment must not violate people’s right to life and to be free from ill treatment. These rights cannot be limited or suspended, even in times of national emergency.

We are all living with restrictions, but in care homes some people have been effectively confined to their rooms and the effects of isolation are really serious. Wider reductions in support might mean more people move into care homes when they could live in their own homes and communities with the right support. Ultimately, the right to live independently, as enshrined in the UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities, needs to be incorporated into our domestic laws to properly maintain standards and protections for disabled people.

The Prime Minister committed on 15th July to an independent inquiry into the response to coronavirus ‘in the future’. Months later, we still don’t have an inquiry underway and time is ticking. The Equality and Human Rights Commission has asked the UK Government to urgently undertake or commission a review into deaths in care homes during the pandemic, so that loved ones of those who were lost have answers and lessons can be learned.

The Government has made positive steps to support the social care sector, with more testing capacity and PPE, and revised guidance on visits. But care home staff have continued to report difficulties on the ground. We face uncertain times ahead and it’s crucial we act now to protect older and disabled people and those who work hard providing care.

Disabled and older people who live in residential care matter; they must be treated with dignity and respect, and their human rights must be upheld. I know we do value the lives of older and disabled people in this country. Now is the time for us to show it.


Caroline Waters OBE is Interim Chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission.
Email: socialcare@equalityhumanrights.com Twitter: @EHRCChair

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