Coronavirus: panic buying and the dangers to disabled people

The medication review I talked about in my previous post happened today. The surgery texted me at 8am to tell me they would be carrying it out over the phone rather than face-to-face. This was after I had turned down paid work yesterday evening so that I could make it to this appointment, something I mentioned to the doctor who told me that they had only decided to carry out the consultation over the phone this morning because “things are changing every day”. I could see when I booked the appointment that the situation would escalate considerably by the end of this week, so I’m surprised it took this long to implement that policy.

A group of people sit on benches in front of a glass lift outside a McDonald's restaurant, where seats are on top of tables. Some of the people are eating food from McDonald's. A flight of steps down to the basement is visible in the foreground and an escalator up from the ground floor is visible in the background. Directly above the McDonald's is an optician's shop.
A group of people sit outside a McDonald’s in the Bentalls centre, Kingston, some of them eating.

Britain so far has no formal ‘lockdown’ policy of the sort which has been imposed in Italy, Spain and France. However, gradually, companies that serve the public are changing the way they operate: even before the government’s announcement tonight (closing pubs and all other leisure facilities and restricting restaurants to takeaways and deliveries only), some chain cafes and restaurants have switched to takeaway only, to not accepting cash, to not accepting reusable cups (which they have previously encouraged with discounts). Both Starbucks and Costa will serve you coffee in one of their disposable cups and still give you the discount if you present a reusable cup. I walked past a Caffe Nero in Kingston this afternoon and there were still people eating and drinking at the tables outside (and probably inside), making no attempt at the social distancing we are all being encouraged to practise. McDonald’s was one of the first to ban in-house dining, but at the branch in the Bentalls centre in Kingston this week, people were still sitting in the indoor mall just outside McDonald’s eating the food they had brought there.

In the middle of last week, life was mostly carrying on as normal, the streets and cafés were full, the government continued to justify keeping schools open and companies were saying they had no plans to shut down. It reminded me of the Billy Bragg song Rumours of War, in which life was carrying on as shelters were built and shop shelves emptied. Now, there is increasing social pressure to stay at home: even Boris Johnson at his daily press conference this evening had slogans on each of the three podiums, “stay at home”, “save the NHS”, “save lives”. I am seeing a lot of appeals on social media to stay at home because going out spreads the virus. Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London, posted an appeal on Twitter not to even go to work unless your job is ‘critical’. However, it’s difficult to minimise your time away from home when it’s so difficult to find basics in any supermarket. Some open 24 hours, others from first thing until 11pm, and the things everyone wants are gone within a couple of hours. It’s nearly impossible to find bread, butter, eggs, common vegetables (luxury vegetables like olives are still plentiful) and, worst of all, soap. Yesterday I must have visited 11 or 12 shops, big and small, supermarkets and pharmacies, in this area and did not find much of what I needed. This took me five hours which I had wanted to spend at home, ironing or writing this. For all the talk of the virus being a big win for the planet, with pollution levels down and dolphins appearing in the seas off Italy for the first time in ages, this situation is benefiting neither public health nor the environment.

The lack of availability of soap is the biggest scandal here: soap kills the coronavirus, it’s essential to protecting ourselves from it, yet shops seem to be ordering no more of it than they usually do. There is a mixture of panic buying, hoarding and simple increased use at play here; people will have started washing their hands at times they previously would not have, or would not have used soap (e.g. before they eat, rather than just after they use the toilet). I visited three branches of Boots in the Kingston area today and not one had any and far from having a large supply of it on a stand prominently signed “SOAP”, they had about three shelves for the stuff which was at the back of the store, past all the hair and holiday products and luxury skincare items. Shops all have these signs asking customers “think before you buy!” but a policy of only selling any customer three units of any high-demand item means it will run out very quickly. Some places still have sanitiser, but I don’t like using the stuff; I want something I can wash off, and in any case, anti-bacterials are useless against viruses and produce resistant bacteria.

Quite a number of my friends have children and other relatives who have learning disabilities, particularly in combination with autism. Many of them have fought long and hard to get them home to them or into places where they can live in the community. Yet the things that they enjoyed doing are now being made impossible and unlike the rest of us, they may not understand why; for example, going to the pub with family members or carers for a drink. Others are finding that carers are resigning or self-isolating. Some care homes both here and elsewhere have imposed lockdowns and barred residents from seeing their families either at the home or elsewhere. The government’s new Coronavirus Bill which they intend to pass into law very quickly contains ‘temporary’ amendments to the Mental Health Act which makes it easier to section (detain) someone (though some of the existing ‘safeguards’ are often worthless, as with the two doctors who in practice almost never disagree) and suspends local authority duties under the Care Act to provide care for disabled adults. The latter has serious ramifications for those with physical impairments, of course, but to deprive a person with a learning disability of social care when it could lead to difficult behaviour stemming from the confusion and sudden change in routine puts them in serious danger of ending up in an ATU (assessment and treatment unit) or other mental health setting, which as experience shows, need not be anywhere near home or easily accessible.

The government has a huge majority and the bill is expected to go through on the nod. I accept the need to stem the transmission of this virus; thousands have died in countries where it has taken hold. But people have died worse deaths in ATUs than from COVID-19 and there are other categories of ‘vulnerable’ people besides the elderly and medically fragile.

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