UK Government acted ‘far too slow’ to address inaccessible COVID comms, MPs say

The Government has been “far too slow” to deal with concerns raised about the accessibility of coronavirus information, according to a cross-party group of MPs.

A report by the Women and Equalities Committee, investigating the “unequal impact” of COVID-19 on disabled people, noted the lack of a British Sign Language (BSL) interpreter for the Government’s press conferences – adding that their communications had been “poor from the outset” of March’s lockdown.

“Accessibility should have been baked in from the start. Much of what is being asked for could be simply achieved, often at low cost, and bring considerate benefit to disabled people.

“We recommend the Cabinet Office implement in full the list of accessible communications asks from RNID and other charities.

“We expect real progress to have been made towards this by the time the government responds to this Report and urge full implementation no later than the end of the first quarter of 2021,” the report reads.

Recommendations from the committee include the implementation of the Royal National Institute for Deaf people’s (RNID) “shopping list“, which includes calls for apps to be accessible to BSL signers and BSL interpretation to be provided for all live public broadcasts.

Commenting on the report, Dr Roger Wicks, Director of Policy and Campaigns at RNID, said he was “pleased” with the committee’s recommendation.

“Deaf people must be able to access the latest and most critical public health information in real time. The changes required are really simple to make so it is doubly frustrating that lessons are not being learned when the human costs – from raised anxiety to real risks around the inaccessibility of vital public health information – are so great.

“While this report provides some Christmas cheer to the 12 million people with hearing loss and who are deaf, we are yet to have confidence that government will get this right in future,” he said.

Referencing the Accessible Information Standard, which ensures that disabled people receive information “they can access and understand” from health and social care services, the committee continues to say that  the experiences of disabled people around inaccessible information during the crisis has been “unacceptable”.

The report reads: “Disabled people have been put at risk through lack of access to vital information. Their communication needs should have been anticipated as a matter of course.

“Everyone should have the right to receive public health information in a format they can understand. We recommend the Accessible Information Standard be extended to apply to all public health messages from government departments.”

Other recommendations from the committee include:

  • “Addressing perceived weaknesses in the Government’s consultation and engagement with disabled people must form a key strand of the proposed National Strategy for Disabled People.”
  • “Ministers and officials involved in communicating public health messages to disabled people should undergo training in psychologically informed communications which take fully into account and empathise with disabled people’s lived experience.”
  • “We ask that the Department of Health and Social Care update us, in its response to this Report, on: progress in distributing clear face masks to NHS Trusts; the effectiveness of the pilot system to distribute the masks to social care providers through Local Resilience Forums; its assessment of the level of need for clear facemasks across health and social care services; and its plans for further procurement and distribution.”

The Women and Equalities Committee also conceded that it is “regrettable” that they did not provide BSL interpretation and subtitles for its public evidence sessions on the website, when the accessibility of the Government’s coronavirus communications were being scrutinised.

“It is reasonable and proportionate for BSL users to request that interpretation and subtitles are provided in these circumstances.

“There are technical difficulties, which are beyond this Committee’s control, to overcome before this can be achieved,” they said.

The committee goes on to recommend that the House of Commons’ Liaison Committee reviews “the adequacy of funding, technical capabilities and expertise available to support live BSL interpretation and subtitles of select committee proceedings on”, and that the House of Commons Commission works to “ensure that a greater proportion of the coverage of the House is fully accessible to Deaf people” with BSL interpretation and subtitles.

The publication of the Unequal Impact report comes just days after lawyers filed an application for a judicial review over the Government’s failure to provide an in-person BSL interpreter for its coronavirus press conferences.

Responding to the committee’s comments on this, Chris Fry of Fry Law said in an article that the group of MPs had “much to say that gives us cause for optimism”.

“We are grateful to the Select Committee for its rigorous assessment and recommendations.

“We hope that in the case of BSL Interpreters, the Judicial Review recently launched on behalf of Katie Rowley will be conceded by Government,” he said.

A decision on the application for a judicial review is expected to be made next year.

In a statement following the publication of the report, Committee Chair Caroline Nokes MP said: “The Government has been far too slow to address concerns about engagement and communications: we need genuinely effective mechanisms by which disabled people can influence policies and practices which affect them, and ensure that hard-won rights and equalities are not eroded.

“Our inquiry heard extensive evidence from disabled people of the profoundly unequal adverse effects: our report makes the case for an independent inquiry into the causes.”

The UK Government has until 22 February 2021 to respond to the report.

The publication is available to read online on the Parliament website, with a BSL summary available on YouTube.

Update: In a statement on her website, Shadow Minister for Disabled People Vicky Foxcroft MP welcomed the report.

“The report highlights what we as a Labour Party have been saying from the start of this pandemic, disabled people have felt like afterthoughts, from issues of accessing food and medication, to the lack of accessible communication.

“The Government need to implement the report’s recommendations in full, including establishing an independent inquiry into the causes of the adverse outcomes – this must never be allowed to happen again,” she said.

Update: Speaking to Disability News Service, a government spokesperson said: “During this unprecedented time, the government has ensured that disabled people have had access to employment support, benefits, financial support, food, medicines, as well as accessible communications and guidance.

“We regularly engage with disability stakeholders and people with disabilities to ensure their needs are considered as part of our response to COVID-19.”

Photo: House of Commons.


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