Opinion: Christine Tongue – Disability during ‘lockdown’

Christine Tongue

I am only now beginning to understand what people in the 1950s must have been going through during the last polio epidemic. I was one of the last wave of children to be infected before the vaccine was developed.

No one knew how it was passed on, it came out of the blue and killed many. In the polio crisis children were the main sufferers – polio’s earlier name was “infantile paralysis”. I was seven.

Now, at 74, I find myself again in the target group for the new virus, old and already with an immune system that doesn’t like a new challenge.

But my problem is that now I will have to wait to get another replacement hip joint until this is all over. Other disabled people, much more at the forefront of the crisis, are very frightened by what’s happening. As part of Access Thanet – our local disability campaign group – I hear their stories. I will change names.

Anna has multiple sclerosis, has asthma and is recovering from cancer. She’s over sixty and  dependent on her wheelchair for getting around her house. She is really vulnerable to the virus so put herself under lockdown three weeks ago and her husband has become her sole carer. Friends and family dare not visit.  He’s taking every precaution but with long queues in supermarkets and people still not understanding about social distancing he can’t be sure he’s not bringing infection into the house. And he has no backup if he becomes ill.

Ivy has fibromyalgia, also uses a wheelchair and lives in a small flat. She falls over a lot when she walks round her flat and has had several recent asthma attacks. Her daughter, whose job has ended because of the business closures, has moved in with her to look after her. Now they’re both worrying about council tax and whether Ivy’s benefits will be affected by her moving in and they (to date) haven’t had clear official guidance. And Ivy is only one of thousands who need to know where they stand. Helplines are jammed with worried callers.

One of the biggest problems is carers. They go from vulnerable person to vulnerable person without protective  equipment, often poorly paid so scared to go sick themselves as they have families depending on them. And if they stay at home, their clients suffer.

Dave was housed a few years ago in a situation that was supposed to be temporary, in a flat that is up a flight of concrete steps. His condition has further deteriorated since he first moved in and he now needs to use a wheelchair all the time. He is completely dependent on carers as he can’t use his wheelchair outside. He is supposed to be self isolating, but in effect he’s trapped.

It doesn’t just affect the elderly. John is 19 and is also totally dependent on a powered wheelchair as he is almost completely paralysed. Carers are vital to give his mother assistance but she is worried about what happens when one of these highly trained people are off sick, or have to self isolate. She has to have people who know how to use the equipment John needs.

All of these people are dependent on services that need face to face contact, they can’t be dealt with by people working from home. Care workers desperately need to be treated as vital health workers and be given the protective equipment that will keep themselves and the people they look after as safe as possible.

We need urgent action to help people now but when this is over we need fundamental changes in the system to make sure the needs of disabled people are prioritised in housing and social care is properly funded.


  1. Because of shortage of regular care home workers most care homes rely on a pool of agency workers who travel around different care homes in a week. They can not keep 2 metres away from the clients and other care workers. Without proper protective clothing they could pass infection from one site to another. They with ALL nhs and care workers need protective clothing NOW

  2. These are strange times for us all. I am disabled and my wife is my sole carer. Our daughters are delivering food and we are coping fine. Sorry if that sounds smug but apart from food shortages we are ok just stir crazy

  3. This pandemic has exposed the crisis in our social care system and in our NHS. The care workers and health workers look after us when we need it most, but so many of them are underpaid and overworked. Now, they are expected to care without proper personal equipment and without testing. They are being exposed, and exposing those they care for, to a deadly virus.

  4. I am disabled but have not had my assessment as it was due on 31st March. I like so many of you are in the high risk status due to severe asthma and I also have diabetes. My adult son who lives with me has been told that he must go to work (he works in Boots doing there warehouse work ie. sorting the delivery)and he is frightened that as he also deals with the customer’s that he will bring it home with him and pass it to me. Please all of you stay safe

  5. As a domicilery carer this is the first article I’ve read that acknowledges not only our existence but also the challenges we face. I do end of life care and am so worried I’ll take something in to my clients, or back to my immunocompromised husband and children. So far I’ve been given 2 single use masks and told to choose wisely when to use them. I love my job but the recent stress is taking it’s toll. Stay safe people and please, if you can, stay at home. See you on the other side.

    • You’re one if the unsung heroines of this crisis! I do hope this opens people’s eyes to how we should value aour carers.

  6. I’m a bit older than you Christine, and can remember the great Smog fear up until the Clean Air Act came into force in 1956! It took a few years to take effect, because most people used coal to heat their homes with, and even to cook by. In fact because bread was rationed after the war, my dad used to bake all our bread in the “Back Oven” every Sunday. Because coal was rationed the coal fire in the sitting room was only lit on Sundays, which heated the Back Oven, so Dad used it at the same time for baking bread!

    Sometime in the early 60’s I remember walking in front of my younger brothers car carrying a Red Oil lamp, because the Smog was so thick we couldn’t see to drive home! I walked in front, keeping an eye on the kerb stones, to see when we needed to turn off, my brother was driving a few yards behind me, which was bit worrying as he had failed his driving test three times previously!

    Up until then it was reported, something like 8,000 people were dying due to Smog, every week! Makes you think doesn’t it, no wonder I have Emphysema, and Pulmonary Fibrosis!

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