Elliot Colburn is MP for Carshalton and Wallington.
Disabled children and their families have disproportionately felt the sting of the pandemic and its inevitable restrictions. The strain of the crisis on the NHS and care systems, and the closure of schools multiple times, has meant that many families have seen reductions in support services and health appointments.
I want to thank the Government for the work they have done to try and mitigate the impact of the pandemic on the lives of disabled children, particularly the laser-like focus of Vicky Ford, whose dedication to helping the most vulnerable children get through and recover from this pandemic I have seen first-hand.
Nevertheless, as a member of the Commons Women and Equalities Select Committee, our inquiry into Unequal impact? Coronavirus, disability and access to services had some very stark findings, and the Disabled Children’s Partnership (DCP) – a coalition of over 80 charities that I have been working closely with – has been surveying a demographically representative pool of over 1,200 parents of disabled children. The results have been startling.
From a report earlier in the year, the DCP estimates that over 75 per cent of parents reported delays to routine health appointments during the pandemic. These vital check-ups – such as MRI scans and Orthopaedic assessments – can help identify where important medical interventions are needed, such as physiotherapy or surgery. These interventions are often vital to help manage a child’s condition. Sadly, as these appointments have been delayed due to the strains of the pandemic, over half of parents say their child’s condition has got worse.
This is deeply concerning. Many families have been working hard for years to help their child live and manage their conditions, but much of this progress has been lost.
In my own borough, for example, I have been working with organisations like the Sutton EHCP Crisis Group, founded by parent champion Hayley Harding, to fight the severely unfair system we had in our area, with a Liberal Democrat-run Council exposed in a BBC Panorama special on special educational needs provision for their disastrous and shameful treatment of local families. This is something I have had to raise in the House a number of times, including during Prime Minister’s Questions.
Not a week goes by that a parent doesn’t come to my surgery looking for help with getting an EHCP for their child, and the pandemic has only exacerbated their struggles.
Unfortunately, this damage has not been limited to physical health. Additional research from the DCP also found that disabled children and their families are more socially isolated than the rest of the population. As has been highlighted in The Sun and Metro, many disabled children have been unable to use technologies like Zoom to speak to friends and family – meaning they have missed out on vital social connections that many of us have taken for granted.
As face-to-face support has had to be reduced due to the pandemic, parents have had to become full-time specialist teachers and carers during the pandemic, leaving little time for socialising. The DCP’s research found that 60 per cent of parents are socially isolated with 80 per cent of them qualifying for NHS psychological support in normal times, due to the levels of anxiety and possible depression they’re experiencing.
Undoubtedly, children across the country – disabled or not – have missed many opportunities for educational and social development over the past year. The Government’s response to this unprecedented situation has been admirable, with the education recovery package for children and young people totalling at £700 million. It is good to see that this package will help target disadvantaged children specifically, including the expansion of one-to-one and small group tutoring programmes.
However, I note that this package is ring-fenced for disabled children and their families. Faced with a flurry of competing demands, we need guarantees that this money will be allocated to disabled children when school leadership teams are making budgetary decisions. In addition, a large number of the services that disabled children need – e.g. speech and language therapy, occupational therapy, educational psychology and physiotherapy – are not the sole responsibility of schools, and will often be provided and funded by the local authority or health service, and are therefore out of the scope of the premium funding. The concern here is about the spending priorities of local government, which as can be seen in the case of Sutton, does not always reflect the needs of disabled children.
Likewise – on mental health – it is brilliant to see the Government taking a proactive approach in providing £79 million for millions of children and young people. But again, it is not clear that any of this funding has been specifically allocated to meet the complex needs of disabled children and families.
As we come out of lockdown and catch-up policies are implemented, the Government must ensure that those that have been hit hardest by the pandemic the support they require. We need specific, ring-fenced funding for disabled children and families – as we on the Women and Equalities committee have been calling for.
This should be a part of a holistic Covid-19 recovery plan for disabled children and families that addresses the disproportionate impact they have experienced – as disability campaigners have been pushing for through the DCP. An additional therapies plan could help children with cerebral palsy fight muscle degeneration. Extra respite care could help combat a mental health crisis in parent carers. Activities to combat social isolation could help disabled children recover vital life skills that they have fallen back on, like communicating with others.
The Conservative Party has a proud track record of supporting children. We can’t let disabled children fall out of the conversation when they need it most.