An extra 150,000 people in England with severe learning disabilities are to be prioritised for a Covid vaccine, the government has announced.
Professor Anthony Harnden, deputy chair of the Joint Committee on Vaccinations and Immunisation, told MPs that GPs would now write to everyone on their learning disability register to invite them for a jab.
Using the register also means some people classed as having a moderate learning disability will get the jab, but not those with a mild disability as campaigners had hoped.
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 individual classifications of their condition.
Harnden said the decision was driven by the need to target those most at risk more quickly.
“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,” he told the Commons Science and Technology Committee.
Families of those with learning disabilities have 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 include everyone with a learning disability, including mild disability, for the jab. Lib Dem leader had this week demanded such a policy for the whole of the UK.
In England, that would have meant an extra 1.5m people getting moved up the priority list, and Professor Harnden stressed that there was no clinical reason for that given 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.
“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. 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.”
He added: “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. However, 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.”
All those with learning disabilities living in shared residential care should already be getting priority for the jab.
People with a “severe or profound” learning disability in England and Wales were already in priority group six for the coronavirus vaccine, along with all those with learning disability living in residential care homes.
And 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.
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.
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.”