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I’m lying in bed recovering from a migraine when I receive a WhatsApp from my fellow disabled pal Cath. “Want some ableist rage?” she asks. With the message, she’d attached a link to a tweet from one of the candidates to be the next leader of the Conservative Party and Prime Ministerial hopeful Rishi Sunak, revealing that if he won, he would fine people £10 for missing GP and hospital appointments.
The ex-chancellor of the exchequer boasted that this would be his way of fixing the strain Covid-19 has put on the NHS, claiming that nearly 15 million GP appointments are missed every year. But as a disabled person, this gave me a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach, and pure rage for being subtly scapegoated again. Let me explain how.
Disabled people often miss hospital and GP appointments for a variety of reasons, mostly because of illness, but there are also lots of other things stopping us too: inaccessibility, being able to afford to get there, or lack of staff to answer the phones, to name a few.
I have to note before anyone complains (as they have on my Twitter) that Sunak does say this measure will be for a “second or subsequent offence”; but when will the line be drawn? Does it count if you tried to cancel an appointment and couldn’t get through because the lines were jammed? What if you physically couldn’t access the building your appointment was in?
It’s painfully ironic that as I read the news, I was gearing up to battle to rearrange a doctor's appointment after missing it because I simply slept through it the week before. This may sound flippant, but when you have crippling fatigue, some days you can’t make your body get out of bed, and all you can do is sleep. To the surgery receptionists' credit, they were wonderfully understanding as I’ve been with them for half a decade, but there weren’t any more advance appointments, and I had to wait to battle the same-day booking system.
Access is a massive reason disabled people are marked down as “Did Not Attend” or DNA - the reality is that we tried to attend but we physically couldn’t. Old hospital buildings with steps and long detours that take you around the other end of the hospital as the only step-free option. Deaf patients asking for face-to-face appointments only but being called for phone appointments. Broken lifts or out-of-order lifts, transport that doesn’t turn up. Light-up boards being used to notify blind patients or doctors calling the names of deaf patients and then not thinking to use the other method when nobody responds, leaving them in the waiting room for hours. All of these happen more often than non-disabled people - like Sunak - realise.
Disabled people are often some of the poorest in society. Many live on benefits and in the cost of living crisis, we are struggling to heat our houses and feed ourselves on even less than non-disabled people. This is money we don’t have to spend on getting to doctors and hospital appointments, considering how unreliable public transport is and how unpleasant our experiences can be. The last thing we want to do is shell out extra money for fines too.
Another sickening blow was that Sunak referred to his plan as a way to fix the NHS after the toll Covid-19 took on it. He may be content to act like it’s over, but we are still very much in the middle of the pandemic, and absences due to the virus are still wiping out vast swathes of the NHS workforce. Staff absences and the fact that anything that was deemed “non-emergency” was cancelled are also to blame for the Covid-19 NHS backlog - not patients missing appointments. Considering disabled people are the group that suffered the most as our healthcare was deemed “non-emergency” for almost two years, it's just insulting that we’re now being blamed.
This is in no way the fault of the NHS. This squarely falls at the feet of the government who have been chipping away at the NHS for the last twelve years, and carving off pieces to sell to their rich mates. Now that this plan has failed, they’re simply trying to get more money out of the public, and pitting them against disabled people in the process.
The message is subtle but it’s there: “THEY are the reason you can’t see a doctor, so they deserve to be punished.”
Fining people for missing hospital and doctors appointments will not solve the NHS crisis. What we need is more money plumbed into the NHS to help the staffing crisis. However, by suggesting that he will fine those who miss appointments, Sunak is playing a very clever game, he’s getting the attention of those who already think disabled people are lazy and a burden, and fueling their hate. This might not be a serious plan, but it's another way to gain support in the hearts of the cruel.
Sunak knows this plan will kill poor, disabled people, but why should that matter to him?