COVID-19 vaccination: blind and partially sighted people need to have priority

Post date: 
Wednesday, 10 February 2021
Other campaigning
A person holds a vial of COVID-19 vaccine

RNIB, Guide Dogs and Thomas Pocklington Trust have written to the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), explaining why blind and partially sighted people should be offered priority access for COVID-19 vaccination.

The coronavirus pandemic has affected everyone, but blind and partially sighted people face unique challenges which affect independence and everyday life.

We wrote to the JCVI – the committee advising the Government on COVID-19 vaccination – to highlight this impact, and to call for blind and partially sighted people to be offered priority access when vaccination enters its second phase soon.

We raised three key issues in the letter. They are:

Difficulties with social distancing

Many blind and partially sighted people find it difficult or impossible to judge how far they are from others, which is essential for social distancing to reduce our risk of infection. As a result, many people tell us they are getting out and about less often, which has a big impact on confidence and independence.

Reliance on support from sighted guides

Sighted guiding provides support for some blind or partially sighted people to safely navigate an unfamiliar environment. It involves the person being guided, lightly holding their sighted guider’s elbow, standing slightly behind and to the left or right. While moving, the guider will talk to the person being guided, giving more information about any immediate hazards.

Sighted guiding during coronavirus restrictions is still possible for permitted journeys. For example, it can be important when attending medical appointments, or when taking public transport for essential travel. When a blind or partially sighted person doesn’t have the option of a sighted guide from within their household, or support bubble, the guide will need to be someone else. In this situation, there are precautionary steps people should take during guiding to reduce the risk of infection. But it still means some blind and partially sighted people will be in closer proximity to a larger number of people, which could put them at greater risk.

For some blind or partially sighted people who live alone, the means of leaving the house has, in effect, been removed, due to the lack of sighted guiding support. Being unable to leave the home then has an impact on mental health and wellbeing.

Increased use of touch to get around

Blind and partially sighted people are more likely to use touch to navigate, for example running their hands along walls or railings. This is a particular concern during the pandemic, due to the risk of contracting the virus from surfaces. 

What we are asking the JCVI to do

We’ve called on the JCVI to take full account of these impacts and risks. We have heard from blind and partially sighted people – aged under 50 or not clinically vulnerable to the virus – who are extremely concerned about leaving the house because of their difficulties with social distancing. To restore confidence in getting out and about, they should be offered the chance to get a vaccination as soon as possible, when the programme reaches the wider population in its second phase.

We understand the diversity of experiences amongst blind and partially sighted people, and that some people still feel relatively confident in getting out and about at this time. Our request would not put blind and partially sighted people above anyone clinically more at risk of serious illness from the virus. But we are asking the JCVI to take account of the practical difficulties social distancing causes, in the same way that people in more high-risk occupations – like police or teachers – are likely to be prioritised in the second wave of vaccination.

Download the letter

Read more about our work during the coronavirus pandemic.