CLINICALLY vulnerable people have been made to feel like “encumbrances on other people’s rights and freedom” and “modern day lepers” since Covid restrictions ended, a leading disability campaigner has warned.

Dr Sally Witcher, who resigned earlier this month as chair of the Scottish Commission on Social Security (SCSS) in order to “speak freely and publicly” about the Scottish Government’s handling of the pandemic, said public health messaging has “descended into complete confusion” with high-risk individuals, unpaid carers, and those with Long Covid becoming targets for online abuse if they voice concern about spiralling infection rates.

Dr Witcher, a former CEO of Inclusion Scotland who has been disabled since childhood and was on the shielding list, is among a number of campaigners and experts due to give evidence today to Holyrood’s Covid-19 Recovery Committee.

READ MORE: 'Blow to social security in Scotland' as commission chair quits post early

In written testimony submitted in a personal capacity ahead of the hearing, Dr Witcher said Long Covid rates should be included among the “primary indicators” for Covid alongside hospitalisations and deaths, and complained that the Scottish Government’s Distance Aware scheme - which provides lanyards and badges which higher risk individuals can opt to wear in public - “positions us like modern day lepers”.

While Government messaging, in Scotland and the rest of the UK, has focused on “going back to normal” without legal requirements for masks or isolation and a reduction in testing, Dr Witcher said there is an “ever-widening chasm between the loss of rights and freedoms for people with high underlying clinical and exposure risk, people with long Covid and unpaid carers, and those returning, or attempting to return, to a pre-Covid normal”.

HeraldScotland: The prevalence of Covid is rising again in Scotland according to the ONS infection surveyThe prevalence of Covid is rising again in Scotland according to the ONS infection survey

It comes as the latest figures for Scotland show that the number of Covid positive patients in hospital had risen to 948 by June 19, up by 27 per cent in a week and more than 50% since the beginning of the month.

The latest surveillance also suggests that around one in 30 people in Scotland are currently infected, the highest rate in the UK and up from one in 50 at the end of May.

The latest Covid wave is being driven by new, ultra-transmissible Omicron strains including the BA.4 and BA.5 subvariants, which caused a huge spike in cases in Portugal, and the BA.2.12.1 subtype which is now dominant in the US but appears to be spreading more rapidly in Scotland compared to the rest of the UK.

Dr Witcher likened the reassurances given to clinically vulnerable people that Covid no longer posed a threat to gaslighting, adding that it is “inexplicable why many formerly on the high-risk [shielding] list were not eligible for additional boosters or antivirals”.

READ MORE: Warning high risk patients being denied Covid antivirals

Patients worried about their risk had been directed to speak to their GP, said Dr Witcher, yet family doctors have not been “[provided] with the power to prescribe extra boosters or antivirals, regardless of their clinical judgement on the individuals ongoing level of clinical risk”.

Antivirals, taken soon after symptom onset, can stop the Covid virus replicating and prevent serious disease.

However, there has been criticism from charities - including those which campaign for people with conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s - that the eligibility list, which is set at UK level, is too limited.

Dr Witcher, who has complex co-morbidities including conditions related to immune system malfunction, respiratory and circulatory problems, lung damage, high blood pressure, and is considered by her GP to be “predisposed to a poor outcome” if she caught Covid, is among those excluded from the antivirals list.

She is also ineligible for the Spring booster, and is now eight months on from her last vaccination. 

HeraldScotland: The number of Covid positive patients in hospital is up more than 50 per cent since the beginning of JuneThe number of Covid positive patients in hospital is up more than 50 per cent since the beginning of June

Dr Witcher said she has being shielding throughout the pandemic and “has no prospect of leaving her house safely in the foreseeable future”. 

She said unpaid carers and the clinically vulnerable have described coming up against hostility instead of empathy because they “face a population which has been told everything is ok so is unwilling to protect us”. 

Dr Witcher said: “To draw attention to the perspectives of people at high clinical risk, Long Covid and unpaid carers is to risk becoming a target for abuse; accused of demanding lockdowns for all and that the majority should have their freedom restricted just to accommodate a minority.

“We are told it is just a cold and/or we are cowards. We were already anyway ill/old before the pandemic, so what’s changed? 

“People wearing masks often report being made to feel the odd ones out, attracting questioning looks and even hostility.

"We are seeing new forms of hate crime emerge, online and in-person, driven by disinformation and misinformation.”

READ MORE: Super contagious 'New York variant' spreading faster in Scotland than rest of UK

Dr Witcher, who was appointed chair of the SSCS in 2019 by then-Social Security Secretary Shirley-Anne Somerville, said public health communications have tended to stereotype the clinically high risk as “elderly, already ill, economically inactive, vulnerable”, when many of those on the shielding list were young, working-age adults who - like herself - are in full-time employment. 

She said: “Protections against infection are positioned as necessary just for us and cast as restrictions on other people’s freedom...all this has, unsurprisingly, bred resentment towards us.”

Any plan for ‘living with Covid’ should making public spaces safer, said Dr Witcher, “including investment in HEPA air filters that extract all manner of viruses and allergens, not just focusing on increasing individual clinical resilience”. 

HeraldScotland: Dr Sally WitcherDr Sally Witcher

In its submission, Alliance Scotland, which represents disabled people, unpaid carers, people living with long term conditions, said fear of Covid infection is “still very real for people at high clinical risk and for unpaid carers”. 

It added: “People are continuing to wear masks, test regularly, and limit contact with friends and family. 

“The impact on people at high clinical risk and unpaid carers is profound; people are experiencing isolation as they continue to isolate from friends and family and feel more at risk as measures taken to protect people from the virus have been reduced”. 

A Scottish Government spokeswoman said its Distance Aware scheme had been developed based on feedback from people on the high risk list. 

She said: “Clearly everyone would prefer to avoid returning to prescriptive rules and restrictions.

"That’s why we’ve asked for everyone – be that businesses, organisations, or individuals – to consider the risks in different settings and then taking appropriate action. 

"This is as simple as observing hygienic practices, through to improved ventilation, continuing to encourage hybrid working where possible, and wearing face coverings where appropriate.

“We have always been clear that, as we adjust to living with Covid-19, we do so in a way that fully considers the needs and views of those who have been at higher risk throughout this pandemic.”