An extra 150,000 people in England with learning disabilities are to be invited for Covid vaccination, the government has announced.
Professor Anthony Harnden, deputy chair of the Joint Committee on Vaccinations and Immunisation (JCVI), told MPs that GPs would now write to everyone on the GP Learning Disability Register to invite them for a jab.
There is no change to the classification of priority groups, but the move is an operational shift to capture more people with profound disability rather than rely on doctors’ local knowledge of cases.
There are currently 250,000 people on the GP Learning Disability Register, which allows extra medical support including annual check-ups.
Crucially, anyone with learning disabilities, whether mild or severe, can join the register. Charity Mencap encouraged all people with any level of learning disability to sign up to the register to ensure their vaccination.
People with severe learning disabilities, and those with any learning disability and living in care homes or supported accommodation, are currently in “Group 6” on the vaccine priority list.
Harnden said the decision was driven by the need to target those most at risk more quickly.
“I and the JCVI are very personally very concerned about this issue because people with learning disabilities are a hugely disadvantaged sector of our society,” he told the Commons Science and Technology Committee.
“And I would like to implore any GPs which are immunising within group six now to reach out to those that they know have learning disabilities and prioritise them within group six.”
“All those on the Learning Disability Register as registered by their GP should be eligible for immunisation now. [...] This will include about another 150,000 or so individuals with learning disabilities.”
Families of those with learning disabilities have long demanded change and DJ Jo Whiley had pleaded for people such as her sister, Frances, to be vaccinated as quickly as possible.
Whiley spoke out when she was offered the jab before her sister, who has a rare genetic syndrome and lives in residential care. The broadcaster’s sister is recovering after being admitted to hospital with coronavirus earlier this week.
But NHS England will not be following the decision of the Scottish government to change its prioritisation list to ensure everyone with a learning disability, including mild disability, qualifies for the jab.
And Prof Harnden told the MPs: “What I don’t want to happen is lots of families who are rightly concerned about their relatives with mild learning disabilities to start banging at the door of their GPs.”
Professor Harnden said that there was no clinical reason for a reprioritisation and claimed that people with mild disability were at no greater risk of Covid than the general population.
“We don’t want everybody who has a relative with a mild learning disability to come forward to be vaccinated now because that would cause problems because there’s over one and a half million of those individuals. And it is really important that we try to find who has got severe, profound learning disabilities.”
He added: “There’s no evidence at all that the individual risk of someone with very mild learning disabilities is any different from someone else of their age.”
That claim is hotly contested by groups such as Mencap, which points to a study last year showing that 65% of people with learning disabilities who died in the first wave of the pandemic had mild or moderate conditions.
A report from Public Health England in November found that people with severe learning disability were up to six times more likely to die from Covid-19 and, in the 18-to-34 age group, their risk was 30 times higher.
Mencap estimates that of the 1.5m people with learning disabilities in the UK, many are already on the vaccination priority list for conditions like diabetes or cerebral palsy and roughly 200,000 people are currently not prioritised.
Adults with Down’s Syndrome have already been offered a jab, in priority group 4, as part of the UK’s target to vaccinate 15m people by mid-February.
DJ Whiley tweeted she was “crying with joy” at the news and told the BBC: “This is a great day – I am so relieved, I’m so happy for all those people who’ve been living in fear.
“I’m very grateful to the government for listening, because it’s a very complicated situation and it’s very difficult to categorise people according to their disability, it’s very, very tricky and that’s become apparent, I think, over the past few months.
“This is clear, this encompasses everybody, and all those people who have been feeling very neglected, feeling like they don’t matter, that we don’t care, now know that we will be protecting them.”
Jackie O’Sullivan, of the learning disability charity Mencap, said: “This is a hugely welcome announcement, and fantastic news for people with a learning disability.
“It’s now crucially important that everyone with a learning disability checks that they are on the register and asks to go on it if they are not. Being on the register has many benefits and entitles people to annual health checks and prioritisation for future vaccinations.”
O’Sullivan also challenged Prof Harnden’s suggestion that 1.5m people would come forward for vaccinations.
“Professor Harnden’s figures are not quite right. There are 1.5 million people with a learning disability in the UK, but only 900,000 adults. The majority of these should already be covered in other categories so extending the criteria to everyone with a learning disability – including people with mild and moderate needs - would only add another 100,000 -200,000 people.
“So he need not worry that millions of people are suddenly going to come forward demanding a vaccine. If anything, we will need to work hard to make sure that people don’t fall through the cracks.”
Care minister Helen Whately said: “I have heard first-hand how tough this pandemic has been for people with learning disabilities and their families. We are determined those more at risk from Covid should be vaccinated as soon as possible.
“Following the JCVI’s updated advice and to make this process simpler and faster, we will be inviting everyone for vaccination who is on their GP’s learning disability register. This will mean those who are at a higher risk from the virus can get the protection they need.”
Professor Wei Shen Lim, covid Chair for JCVI, said: “As the severity of any disability may not be well recorded in GP systems, JCVI supports the NHS operational plan for anyone on the GP Learning Disability Register to be invited now for vaccination as part of priority group 6, and to reach out in the community to identify others also severely affected by a learning disability but who may not yet be registered.”