All adults with learning disability to be offered Covid vaccine in priority u-turn

Decision could mean 150,000 more people will be prioritised for the vaccination

Shaun Lintern
Health Correspondent
Wednesday 24 February 2021 16:17 GMT
BBC radio DJ Jo Whiley with her sister Frances, who was admitted to hospital with Covid last week
BBC radio DJ Jo Whiley with her sister Frances, who was admitted to hospital with Covid last week (Jo Whiley/BBC/PA)

All adults with a learning disability will be offered the vaccine against coronavirus after new advice from government experts warned they were at greater risk from the virus.

The decision is a major win for disability charities and campaigners, including DJ Jo Whiley, who has publicly called for mass vaccination for people with learning disabilities after her sister Frances was admitted to hospital last week.

The decision will mean as many as 150,000 more people could be offered the vaccine.

The government’s Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) has issued new advice saying any adult on GP Learning Disability Register should be prioritised for vaccination along with adults with related conditions such as cerebral palsy.

The JCVI had previously said only those were severe learning disabilities and those living in care homes should be prioritised for vaccinations. Disability rights campaigners and charities warned this left vulnerable people at increased risk from the virus.

An analysis of health records by the Open Safety analytics platform looked at outcomes from the second wave of the pandemic for patients using various different codes to identify people with a learning disability.

It confirmed a higher risk of death and complications for those registered with a learning disability.

The JCVI has also backed a plan for the NHS and local councils to identify adults living in care homes and residential settings who may need additional help to get the vaccine.

BBC Radio 2 presenter Whiley joined with charities including Mencap to call for mass vaccination of people with learning disabilities after research on deaths from Covid-19 showed they were more likely to die.

A report from Public Health England found people with a learning disability were up to six times more likely to die from Covid-19 and, in the 18-34 age group, their risk was 30 times higher.

Whiley was offered the vaccine before her sister Frances, who has a rare genetic syndrome and lives in residential care. She was admitted to hospital last week and at one stage was said to be fighting for her life, but has since been discharged from hospital and is doing well.

Reacting to the news, the DJ told the BBC it was a “seismic day” and a “massive step forward”.

She said: “This is a great day. I am so relieved, I’m so happy for all those people who’ve been living in fear.

“I’m very grateful to the government for listening, because it’s a very complicated situation and it’s very difficult to categorise people according to their disability, it’s very, very tricky, and that’s become apparent I think over the past few months.

“And so this is clear, this encompasses everybody, and all those people who have been feeling very neglected, feeling like they don’t matter, that we don’t care, now know that we will be protecting them.

“This is absolutely crucial and I could not be more delighted. This is a massive step forward.”

Jackie O'Sullivan, executive director of communication at Mencap, said: “It's now crucially important that everyone with a learning disability checks that they are on the register and asks to go on it if they are not. Being on the register has many benefits and entitles people to annual health checks and prioritisation for future vaccinations, as well as allowing them to get the Covid vaccine and be confident they are protected.”

Professor Wei Shen Lim, Covid-19 chair for the JCVI, said: “The JCVI’s advice on Covid-19 vaccine prioritisation was developed with the aim of preventing as many deaths as possible. People who are severely affected by learning disabilities are at higher risk of death from Covid-19.

“As the severity of any disability may not be well recorded in GP systems, JCVI supports the NHS operational plan for anyone on the GP Learning Disability Register to be invited now for vaccination as part of priority group six, and to reach out in the community to identify others also severely affected by a learning disability but who may not yet be registered.”

People with Down’s Syndrome were already included in group four for priority vaccinations due to a higher risk of severe infection and death and have been included on the government’s list of people classed as clinically extremely vulnerable and advised to shield.

The JCVI has said age is the biggest factor in determining the risk of death from coronavirus.

Health minister Helen Whately said: “I have heard firsthand how tough this pandemic has been for people with learning disabilities and their families. We are determined those more at risk from Covid should be vaccinated as soon as possible.

“Following the JCVI’s updated advice and to make this process simpler and faster, we will be inviting everyone for vaccination who is on their GP’s learning disability register. This will mean those who are at a higher risk from the virus can get the protection they need.”

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