People with disabilities cannot be expected to "just go into a freezer" in the event of a second wave of coronavirus, and their families need supports and services reopened as soon as possible, the Oireachtas committee on Covid-19 has been warned.
"It's not good enough that people with disabilities don't die from Covid," said John Dolan, chief executive of the Disability Federation of Ireland. "The ambition cannot be that people with disabilities just go into a freezer during Covid. We can't just have people cocooned and isolated. It's not okay. They have to be able to get on with their lives."
The committee heard most disability services remained closed, with some not scheduled to reopen until September; that many people with disabilities had had little or no contact from their services since March; that many were depressed and regressing; and that families caring for loved ones with disabilities were “at the end of their capacity” to cope.
Several organisations called for an extension of the Pandemic Unemployment Payment for vulnerable adults who may not be able to return to work even after the economy fully reopens, and for assurances from Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly that mooted “efficiency” cuts of €20 million to voluntary services would not go ahead.
They said reopening safely would cost services more than many had funding for, and these costs would have to be met by central government urgently.
Enda Egan, chief executive of Inclusion Ireland, told the committee families would not be able to cope without services much longer.
“There is another pandemic about to hit us and it is family carer burnout. That will lead to a revolving door of emergency cases.” There were “some concerns” services could be too cautious in reopening.
“The key point is services providers must move quickly to reopen and they must do their absolute utmost, and not use HSE guidelines as a stumbling block for the reopening.”
Mark O’Connor, community engagement manager with Inclusion Ireland, called for a temporary Covid-19 payment for services to enable them to secure additional premises and staff, to accommodate social distancing and to “ensure as many people as possible receive a service”.
For profoundly disabled people, he added, online services didn’t work. “Face-to-face supports is the only kind of support that is going to work for those guys,” he said.
“The fundamentals of the Irish economy are strong, the ability to borrow is not in doubt. We must invest now to minimise the damage to lives and prospects for people with disabilities or two things will happen: firstly the lives and the life-years of people will be diminished, and second any latter investment will only show modest returns.”
Dr Frank Conaty, acting chief commissioner with the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission (IHREC), said under the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, the State had a legal obligation "to protect, promote and ensure full and equal enjoyment of all human rights and fundamental freedoms of all persons with disabilities and to promote respect for their inherent dignity".
The commission had examined Department of Health guidelines to clinicians, on decisions about which patients should get treatment where demand exceeded a hospital's capacity.
IHREC remained “concerned there are potentially profound implications for the human rights and equality of people with disabilities, older people and other vulnerable people”, he said.