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How can we protect people’s rights during coronavirus?

Jonathan Senker 20 October 2020

People who found it most difficult to be heard, and people already facing the greatest barriers, have been hardest hit.

Jonathan Senker explores key lessons from a new report which draws on the experiences of advocates and people using social care and health services during the coronavirus pandemic. 

Since March 2020, we have experienced huge changes to the way we live our lives, from how we socialise, to how we access services. This has highlighted inequalities already faced by vast swathes of the population. We’ve seen this as advocates and advocacy organisations, and we’ve heard this from the people we support. 

We decided to come together as an advocacy sector to share our insights, support one another, speak about the problems we’ve found and promote solutions. We surveyed advocates from across England and Wales, and our collaborative report published today communicates the results.

Looking back

Advocates recognised the enormous changes experienced by people using care services, and the remarkable efforts of people who provide them. But they also identified systemic failings. 

One of the most striking figures was that three quarters of the advocates told us that they had seen failures to fully uphold people’s human rights during the first months of the pandemic. Restrictions for people receiving care and support were often applied on a blanket basis, and were frequently more stringent than those applied to general population who do not receive similar support. Almost one in two advocates had seen people in care homes restricted, either by being confined to their own rooms or not allowed outdoors at all. 

We also heard about how the risks of abuse and harm had increased. As people were more isolated, it became harder for people to raise concerns and more difficult to ensure a positive response to them. 

People were more likely to need advocacy due to all of these issues coming on top of prior concerns. But there were increased barriers to people getting an advocate, and to being able to meet with that advocate in private. People who found it most difficult to be heard, and people already facing the greatest barriers, have been hardest hit. 

In terms of our work as advocacy organisations, we’ve remained open during the pandemic, combining remote working – by phone and video – with meeting safely in person with people when needed. During the first few weeks of the pandemic, while adapting rapidly to remote working, we also became acutely aware of its limitations with many people. We became determined to ensure we continue face to face contact when needed. So we’re taking a blended approach: working out what’s necessary and what’s appropriate in each situation, while applying the national guidance. 

Looking forward

So what next? The report offers immediate insights that will help us as we experience the impact of the resurgence of coronavirus. We’re calling on decision makers, providers and policy makers to make sure that decisions about individuals are only ever made with those individuals and on a one-to-one basis - rather than blanket policies being applied. And our advocates are continuing to work with people one-to-one to make sure that this happens.

We’re calling on local authorities to get the message out really loudly and clearly that people’s entitlement to social care remains intact and needs to be responded to. Where people’s support has fallen away, that needs to be identified and addressed. 

Similarly, we’re continuing to work with local authorities, with providers and with many others to get the message out that the duty to refer to advocacy hasn’t changed. People are still entitled to independent advocacy support in the same circumstances as before.

Our report also looks to the longer term. At an individual and societal level, the pandemic has made what already mattered matter more, and amplified what was previously wrong. What matters to most of us is relationships, and being able to live where and how we choose. We need social care and long-term health care that enables and supports those of us who need assistance to do this. 

This is a matter of shifting mindsets, so that we’re focused on supporting each person to have a stronger voice in their lives, rather than fitting people into available provision. It’s also about shifting resources into social care and towards tailored support, community based responses and prevention.

Much as we may want to do so, we can’t click our ruby slippers and pretend that 2020 never happened. The pandemic presents us with a choice to make as a society. We can become more divided: between people who have rights and a decent life, and people who are consigned to second or third best. Or, with courage, thoughtfulness and heart, we can invest in our communities and reshape our social care and health services to become more effective in supporting all citizens.