Another week, another government U-turn putting the whims of Boris Johnson’s whiney right flank over the lives and freedoms of disabled people. Plus ça change.
This time, it was the (temporary?) scrapping of plans for vaccine passports for people attending large events. Sajid Javid, the health secretary, insisted that the passports were no longer needed because of other things in the “wall of defence,” including high vaccine uptake, testing and new treatments.
This will be news to sick and disabled people, who are keeping a close and nervous eye on the stats. On average, 36,002 people tested positive every day last week. Almost 1,000 people died in the same period. For anyone with vulnerabilities to Covid, the pandemic is far from over.
Some of the people most vulnerable to serious illness, particularly those who are immunocompromised, are among those least likely to get strong protection from the vaccines. For them, the crucial thing is that the people around them are also vaccinated, helping to stop the spread. Vaccine passports were a good way of ensuring that these sick and disabled people could begin to restart their lives, reassuring them that huge risks have at least been mitigated. Now, as cases rise again, they’ll be forced to cut social contact even as others carry blithely on, still unaware of the consequences of their actions.
Disabled people have long been at the sharp end of the pandemic, not least because they’ve been routinely forgotten by government policy. But at least in the first lockdown, people were aware of the plight of shielders, and councils and mutual aid groups rallied to provide support. Now, shielding isn’t officially advised, so there’s no help for those who feel they don’t have a choice. They’ve been completely forgotten – and they’re still scared.
The cancellation of vaccine passports is just another example of placating Conservative MPs ahead of protecting lives. But it’s also symptomatic of a belief that existed long before the pandemic: that disabled people’s rights and freedoms are not worth the “hassle” of including us. This is the logic behind not providing a ramp, and it’s also the rationale that says our ability to enjoy a concert or a football match is less important than nondisabled people’s “freedom” from QR codes .
I was recently asked, in a radio interview, to justify to a nightclub owner why he should pay out to monitor vaccine passports when “the majority” don’t want them. Leave aside the audacity of asking a disabled person to argue for their right to socialise without being in fear of their lives, and ponder: which other minority rights do you feel happy jettisoning because some people don’t care? Disabled people were always second-class citizens; now I wonder if we’re considered part of society at all.
Which is why our rights are often seen as impinging on, or separate from, those enjoyed by nondisabled people. But vaccine passports wouldn’t just keep us safe, they would keep you from getting ill. They would hopefully encourage the remaining hold-outs to get jabbed, perhaps helping to avoid winter restrictions and, ultimately, ending the pandemic sooner, for everyone. Isn’t that what everyone wants?
What I want is to go to a gig and sing along to my favourite songs. I want to go and see a show in the West End. Most of all, I just want to go dancing – to lose myself in a crowd and the music. For now, though, as friends go to festivals and nightclubs, this all seems like a world seen through a one-way frosted window. I can see the outlines, but I am kept outside, and those inside can’t even see I’m there.
Vaccine passports would have been a simple way to level the field and allow disabled people back into some of these spaces. I worry that the longer we’re kept away, the less urgent it becomes to fix a dodgy lift or empty the disabled loos of storage boxes. Really, I worry that the longer we’re kept away, the easier it is never to allow us back.
Next time you celebrate the easing of so-called restrictions that don’t, in fact, restrict you, ask who is being left behind. Ask who is losing freedom so you can (supposedly) gain it. Ask whose lives and livelihoods are being devalued. Again and again, the answer is sick and disabled people. What is our freedom from fear worth?
Lucy Webster is a writer, political journalist and disability advocate.