Councils using emergency coronavirus powers to cut services for older and disabled people could be breaking the law, disability and civil liberties campaigners have warned.
At least seven councils have taken advantage of rights under the Coronavirus Act not to carry out detailed assessments of people’s care needs and to delay or reduce care provision, as they find themselves under pressure to divert resources to support the NHS by discharging patients.
The civil rights campaign group Liberty has written to the councils requesting the full justifications for invoking the “easements” of their care duties which it says are required by law.
Warwickshire county council invoked the easements last month and warned care receivers that the care and support they received at the time “may not be provided in the future or may be provided in a different way”.
It said the changes may have “a negative impact on some customers”, but stressed it had not yet cut any services.
Derbyshire county council said it had “suspended, reduced or changed some non-essential home care services”, while Solihull borough council has asked care recipients if their family or volunteers could help them instead.
Sam Grant, Liberty’s policy and campaigns manager, said: “Councils’ actions not only risk being unlawful. If you are disabled or rely on social care, they could leave you without the most basic support.
“Councils’ actions pave the way for vital safeguards to be stripped away just when people have become even more vulnerable. As a bare minimum, councils must immediately demonstrate they have met the high standards set by the government before they begin relaxing care rules.”
Disability Rights UK said its helpline had received multiple calls from disabled people who had lost social care services since the start of the pandemic. It is one of the groups warning that the moves mean the most vulnerable may be the hardest hit by emergency efforts to protect the NHS.
“We appreciate there are significant resource challenges for local authorities, against a backdrop of cuts over the last 10 years,” said Kamran Mallick, the chief executive of Disability Rights UK. “But the pandemic, and changes to services, are having a massive impact.
“The government needs to make sure disabled people don’t become even harder hit because of the pandemic, and that councils have the money to deliver services which help disabled people stay independent.”
Staffordshire county council said it had temporarily suspended needs assessments. Coventry city council has done the same and said it may also have to cut some services if staff numbers are further depleted and demand for other Covid-19 support rises.
Councils stressed they were acting proportionately and only changing care provision and arrangements for assessing citizens’ needs where absolutely necessary.
Warwickshire said a quarter of its staff had been sick or in self-isolation and that its resources had been stretched by the demand to help the NHS discharge people from hospitals.
It said: “Increased levels of demand combined with the reduction in staff capacity available mean it is not possible to continue to meet the needs of all existing and new customers in line with normal practice under the Care Act.”
Birmingham city council said it has been reducing choice for service users – for example, of which care home to move into – but said this was because of “the level of pressure on the care provider sector at the moment, combined with the need to free up capacity in acute hospitals”.
Solihull borough council said: “The decision to exercise the care act easements has been taken to ensure the best possible provision of care for vulnerable adults with the capacity available while protecting staff and managers who are responsible for delivering that care. This also recognises the continued pressure that our care providers are experiencing because of coronavirus.”
Alan White, the deputy leader of Staffordshire county council, which temporarily suspended needs assessments, said: “I think everybody recognises these are unprecedented times. I want to thank people for their understanding, and reassure them that we are doing everything in our powers to keep everyone, but particularly the most vulnerable, safe and well.”
But Liberty said: “The government and local councils should be working to shore up – not weaken – support for disabled people, their carers and those who rely on social care during this pandemic. We need to come through this crisis the right way – with all of our rights intact.”