Young people with learning disabilities are being driven to self-harm after being prevented from seeing their families during the coronavirus lockdown in breach of their human rights, a new report finds.
The Joint Committee on Human Rights warned that the situation for children and young people in mental health hospitals had reached the point of “severe crisis” during the pandemic due to unlawful blanket bans on visits, the suspension of routine inspections and the increased use of restraint and solitary confinement.
The report concluded that while young inpatients’ human rights were already being breached before the pandemic, the coronavirus lockdown has put them at greater risk – and called on the NHS to instruct mental health hospitals to resume visits.
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It highlighted cases in which young people had been driven to self-harm, including Eddie, a young man with a learning disability whose mother, Adele Green, had not been able to visit him since 14 March.
“When the lockdown came, it was quite quick in the sense that the hospital placed a blanket ban on anybody going in and anybody going out,” said Ms Green.
“Within a week, with the fear and anxiety, he tried to take his own life, which really blew us away. We were mortified.”
In another case, Andrea Attree, mother of Dannielle, a young autistic woman, said she had been permitted to visit her daughter, but only once, on her birthday.
“We had that visit and afterwards she was an absolute mess. I have not been able to visit since. I have continued to point out that this is having a detrimental effect on her long-term health, with an escalation in her anxiety-driven behaviour,” said Ms Attree.
“She is expressing herself in ways that I have never seen before. It is absolutely devastating. She is ligaturing regularly. She is self-harming to extremes, banging her head. She has smashed all her knuckles on her hand.”
Figures from April 2020 show that 595 children and young people under the age of 25 remain in detention in specialist inpatient units.
NHS England issued guidance in early April on suspending visits to all hospitals, but said exceptions could be made for people with mental health conditions “where not being present would cause the patient to be distressed”.
On June 5 the suspension was lifted, with new guidance saying decisions on visiting were “subject to local discretion by trusts and other NHS bodies”.
Harriet Harman, the chair of the committee, said the initial guidance was not respected and therefore blanket bans on visitors were established at a local level, meaning visits were not taking place “unless people really, really fight for them”.
The committee is urging NHS England to write to all hospitals, including private ones, stating they must allow visits unless there is a specific reason relating to an individual case why it would not be safe, and said the Care Quality Commission (CQC) should be responsible for ensuring national guidance is followed.
Highlighting the urgency of the situation, Ms Harman said: “There’s always a danger to vulnerable people in closed institutions. The Covid-19 lockdown increases that danger and the government must recognise it and take action.”
Edel Harris, chief executive of the learning disability charity Mencap, said: “With family contact cut and CQC inspections reduced during lockdown, families are rightly terrified about what is happening to their loved ones behind closed doors.
“The government and NHS England must not use the coronavirus crisis as an excuse not to fix the root cause of the problem by investing in the right social care and housing in the community to stop the vicious circle of admissions, delayed discharge and re-admissions.”
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “During the Covid-19 pandemic our priority is to keep people safe and to ensure that those receiving care and support are protected.
“We are committed to ensuring people with a learning disability and autistic people have the best possible quality of life. Above all, human rights must be protected.
“We will consider these recommendations carefully and respond to them in due course.”