disability covid mask

The chair of the disability royal commission has slammed the federal government for failing to protect people with disability in its COVID -19 response.

Ronald Sackville QC

The commission’s Chair Ronald Sackville on Monday tabled the commission’s report on the experiences of people with disability during the coronavirus outbreak.

Its release comes after public submissions and a special hearing showed with people disability felt frightened, abandoned and ignored during the pandemic.

Commissioner Sackville said the report found people with disability were worried about loss of support, loss of access to essential supplies like food and medicine, and delayed testing.

They were also concerned about being cared for by a revolving pool of workers who may have been exposed to the virus, and they feared health care would be rationed leaving them at the bottom of the pile.

Their fears were made worse by the government’s failure to plan for, communicate with or consult people with disability until well into the pandemic, the commissioner said.

Policy failures

Commissioner Sackville said at the beginning of the outbreak there were no emergency plans specifically addressing people with disability and disability providers were left in the cold with no support or guidance.

He said even when the government did act, it overlooked people not on the NDIS and delivered poorly coordinated responses.

“During the early stages of the pandemic no agency of the Australian government made any significant effort to consult with people with disability,” he told a media conference on Monday.

“The Australian government failed to give service providers clear guidance about infection control and outbeak management measures appropriate to disability residential settings.

“In short, we find because commonwealth agencies failed to take account of the needs and the precarious situation of people with disability, their needs were not met.

“This in our view was a major failure.”

Deficiencies in data

The report also identifies “serious deficiencies” in data about how covid affected people with disability, making it impossible to get any clear understanding of infection or death rates.

The Comissioner was also scathing of the NDIS Quality and Safeguards Commission, which he said fobbed off responsibility to providers.

“In part the (Quality and Safeguards) Commission did this because in our view it took an unduly narrow view of its legal powers,” he said.

“The circumstances warranted more active intervention by the commission to identify people who where particularly at risk and to safeguard their well being,” he said.

Commissioner Sackville said the government had failed to comply with its international obligations under the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

“The fundamental message that comes out of the report is that governments are responsible for ensuring that they safeguard the fundamental rights of people with disability,” he said.

“The experiences of the pandemic show how important it is for people with disability to particiate in decisions that affect their well being and that governments must ensure that they listen.”

Commissioner Sackville said he hoped the report would help avoid similar mistakes being made in the future.

The report makes 22 recommendations including establishing a specialist team responsible for developing a disability pandemic plan and coordinating government responses; introducing immediate measures to record data on COVID deaths and cases in people with disability; and reviewing disability service standards and quality indicators to cover pandemics.

Australian Greens disability rights spokesperson Senator Jordon Steele-John said he was appalled at the findings.

 “The recommenations made by the Chair are a vindication of the outrage and distress felt by disabled people, and our families, throughout the COVID-19 pandemic” Senator Steele-John said.

“It proves that we were shut out of emergency response planning at the beginning of the pandemic, or not even considered, and as a result our lives were put at risk.”

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