Hafal calls on Welsh Government to prioritise people with a mental illness in vaccine roll-out

Welsh mental health charity Hafal has called on the Welsh Government to prioritise people with a mental illness because they are at high risk of catching the disease and of becoming seriously ill.

The Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) has now authorised the Pfizer Biontech vaccine as safe and effective, and a vaccination programme is currently being delivered across Wales. The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) which advises the UK governments on vaccines and immunisation has said that people with underlying health conditions are a priority group: this includes people living with “severe mental illness” – defined as “individuals with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, or any mental illness that causes severe functional impairment”.

The JCVI advises that these patients should be offered a vaccine once one has been offered to people who are:

  • residents in a care home for older adults
  • frontline health, social care and care home workers
  • 65 and over
  • clinically extremely vulnerable.

Of course, some patients with “severe mental illness” will already fall into those categories.

Hafal asks the Welsh Government to ensure that people with a “severe mental illness” in Wales, which includes those receiving mental health services at secondary level and many others who receive primary care-level services for such illnesses as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, receive the vaccine at not less than the JCVI recommended level.

Hafal points out that people with a mental illness are commonly:

  • In very poor physical health – as evidenced by their life expectancy which is 15-20 years less than the general population – and so are exceptionally vulnerable once infected
  • Living in chaotic, changing or risky environments – between shared and family housing, specialist housing, homelessness, hospital or prison
  • Liable to be confused about how to avoid infection and sometimes at high risk of infection due to behaviour when psychotic
  • In frequent contact with health and social care services for routine treatment, medication, and therapy – and also in emergencies – and so at higher risk of infection.

Vice-Chair of Hafal, Consultant Child and Adolescent Nurse and Visiting Professor Dr. Euan Hails, said: “All those with a mental illness should be high priority when it comes to vaccination as this group is at increased risk of catching Covid-19, and of becoming seriously ill.

“A wide range of studies suggest that our clients are faced with extreme physical health inequalities. For example, a meta‐analysis of research has found that people with illnesses such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder are 53% more likely to have a cardiovascular disease than those without these conditions.

“The fact is this group is extremely vulnerable to Covid-19 because of underlying health conditions, poor living conditions and potential exposure to healthcare settings.

“People with a mental illness have traditionally been stigmatised and their lives less valued. The Welsh Government needs to show leadership in valuing these lives by giving patients the priority they deserve in the roll-out of the vaccine.”

Hafal’s Chair Mair Elliott added: “It’s also vitally important that carers are given appropriate priority, especially those older carers providing essential support who would otherwise be able to self-isolate. They are putting themselves at risk to provide important support for the people they care for and the NHS – they deserve to be recognised.

“I make an offer to the Welsh Government: give these groups the priority they deserve and we will gladly assist you in reaching them via our 22 local county networks covering all of Wales, and we will champion the importance of vaccination to our client group.”

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