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Changes secured to Covid-19 Hospital Visitors Guidance after concerns over equal access to healthcare for disabled people

Mark Williams, a Bristol based disability rights campaigner and one of the founders of Bristol Reclaiming Independent Living (BRIL) has welcomed the response received to his ‘Pre-Action’ letter, sent by his legal team to NHS England and the North Bristol and University Hospitals Bristol NHS Trusts following concerns over their strict policies for hospital visitors during the Coronavirus pandemic.

Mr Williams has had athetoid cerebral palsy since birth which means he has no control over his limbs and requires 24-hour support. He also has extreme difficulty controlling the muscles of his lips, tongue, palate and larynx, resulting in very distorted speech which means that someone unfamiliar to him would only understand about 10% of his speech. This is made worse in situations where there is background noise and emotions are heightened. He relies on his team of personal assistants who are paid using a direct payment from Bristol City Council, to be able to communicate everything that he says.

He was anxious that if he needs to be admitted to hospital during the current COVID-19 pandemic, the visitor policies that were in place for both Southmead and the BRI (which are drawn from the NHS England guidance) would not allow his carers to attend with him to make sure he was able to communicate with doctors.

Mr Williams’ lawyers argued that visitor policies were discriminatory as they failed to make reasonable adjustments for disabled people with communication needs and were in breach of Mr William’s human rights.

In a response to the letter before action from NHS England received today, they have said:

“NHS England agrees to amend and re-issue its Visitor Guidance dated 8 April 2020 (Publications approval reference: 001559). The amendment will be made as soon as possible and will address your client’s concerns…In the meantime, and for the avoidance of doubt, NHS England confirms that the Visitor Guidance is not intended to prevent providers from complying with their legal duties under the Equality Act 2010”.

Mr Williams said:

“The idea of being in hospital and not being able to communicate with hospital staff; to tell them how I am feeling or ask them questions about what treatment they have planned, was terrifying. I knew it was important to take this action not just for me, but for all other people with communication and sensory needs that were facing similar worries. I would like to thank NHS England for listening to my concerns and agreeing to make changes to their guidance so quickly.”

In addition, Mr Williams has received responses from both Hospital Trusts in Bristol confirming that he will be able to be supported by his PAs in the event that admission to hospital is required. They have also confirmed that they will be reviewing and amending their local policies.

Polly Sweeney, partner at specialist public law and human rights firm Rook Irwin Sweeney who represented Mr Williams on a Pro Bono basis, added:

“Our client would wish to acknowledge in particular the response received from the North Bristol NHS Trust which has provided him with a great deal of comfort that his concerns have been properly and respectfully taken on board.

Whilst the responses of all the public bodies are welcomed, this case acts as an important reminder that even in these emergency times it is essential that there is consultation with the public and representative groups before policies are published so to avoid steps like these having to be taken.”

Changes secured to Covid-19 Hospital Visitors Guidance after concerns over equal access to healthcare for disabled people

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