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Social services call on EU to uphold the rights and health of staff and users in next phase of COVID-19 response

As Europe begins to slowly lift the strict lockdowns that were imposed in a response to the COVID-19 pandemic, thousands of support service providers are beginning to re-open their face-to-face services and provide essential support to persons with disabilities and their families. Although the pandemic may have reached its peak in Europe, the threat and impacts of virus are far from over, forcing these services to adapt to a new reality while also ensuring the rights and health of their service users and workforce. Despite the European Commission acting quickly, to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 on many key sectors, the social sector has been unable to fully benefit from the EU’s response package.  As services begin to re-open, the European Association of Service providers for Persons with Disabilities (EASPD) and its partners request that the European Commission continues to take urgent steps to promote the safe provision of support and social services to the millions of people who need them.
 
COVID-19 has tested, and proven, the flexibility and innovativeness of the social care and support sector. Having quickly shifted many of their services online during the strict confinement measures, many social care and support services are now adapting to life after lockdown and are re-launching their face-to-face services, to deliver essential support to those who need it. While confinement measures have softened, social distancing measures remain, creating new challenges for support services, who must uphold the rights and health of their staff and users. On 13th May, EASPD brought together support service providers, health and safety experts, representatives of the social service workforce and persons with disabilities for a webinar to discuss how services can safely re-open amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.
 
The webinar was held as news broke that the European Commission will host a much-needed webinar on 3rd June, to provide Social Services and Managing Authorities with practical information on how the Coronavirus Response Investment Initiative (CRII) can be used by the sector.
 
Speaking during the webinar Milan Šveřepa, Director of Inclusion Europe, asserted the importance of upholding the rights of persons with disabilities during the pandemic and highlighted the key role quality support services play in doing this. Such services must be delivered in a safe manner, in-line with the latest health and safety measures, to minimize the spread of COVID-19 amongst staff and persons with disabilities, who may be more vulnerable to the virus.
 
Support service providers from Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria and France identified mitigating the spread of infection; managing the fears of users and staff; adapting the offer of services to fit the needs of users and security of funding as key challenges as they re-launched their face-to-face services. To be successful in overcoming many of these challenges, speakers underlined the importance of working with all stakeholders, including service users, workers representatives and health services, throughout the re-opening process.  
 
Prioritizing access to Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), for both social service staff and users, is an immediate priority if the sector is to continue to provide close contact personal support. William Cockburn, Head of Prevention and Research Unit at the European Agency for Safety & Health at Work also stressed that, due to the nature of work social service staff perform, access to testing when needed is crucial.  
 
Simply providing access to PPE is not enough however and there also needs to be an investment into the additional training of staff, on how to use PPE and implement safety standards. With additional waves of the virus expected until a vaccine is widely available, Luca Scarpiello, Policy Officer at the European Federation of Public Service Union, added that this training should be joined by long-term investment into preparedness planning, so that services can be better prepared for the challenges future emergencies may bring.
 
While concluding the webinar Luk Zelderloo, Secretary General of EASPD acknowledged  the important work of support services during the pandemic saying that, “the sector has again proven its adaptability during the COVID-19 pandemic, as it strives to support those who are too often left behind in times of crisis”.
 
Looking to the role the EU can play in supporting the sector at this time, he stressed: “COVID-19 has exposed, more than ever, the negative consequences of years of underfunding. Now is the time to change this narrative. We welcome the European Commission’s initative to improve the accessibility of CRII for social services, but greater support is needed to ensure that the sector can continue to deliver vital services to those who need them. This initiative must be joined by the launch of an Emergency Fund for Social Services, to provide rapid access to much needed funding for the immediate crisis needs at local level. As Europe begins to move out of this crisis the European Recovery Plan must dedicate a significant approach to supporting the most vulnerable and those who care and support them, including through specific budget allocations to quality social service provision.”
 
Following the webinar and the identification of the issues raised within it, EASPD and 12 partners have launched an open letter to Commission Vice Presidents Dubravka Šuica and Věra Jourová and Commissioners Nicolas Schmit, Helena Dalli and Stella Kyriakides. The letter calls for the European Commission to take urgent steps to protect and empower those most at risk during the COVID-19 pandemic by ensuring access to high quality service. As the confinement measures begin to lift across Europe EASPD is ready to work with the European Commission and key partners, to ensure that the EU’s response to the pandemic benefits all those living in Europe.  
 

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Note to editors

The European Association of Service providers for Persons with Disabilities is a non-profit European umbrella organization, established in 1996, and currently representing over 17,000 social and health services for persons with disabilities. EASPD advocates effective and high-quality disability-related services in the field of education, employment and individualised support, in line with the UN CRPD principles, which could bring benefits not only to persons with disabilities, but to society as a whole.
 

For more information please contact:

Rachel Vaughan
EASPD Communications Officer
+32 2 233  77 20
Rachel.Vaughan@easpd.eu
www.easpd.eu