Fall in disabled older people in census data ‘could be due to pandemic’

A drop in the percentage of disabled older people in England and Wales could be due to the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, the latest figures suggest.

Census figures show a “significant reduction” among older people who stated that they were limited “a lot” by their disability, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) said.

The statistics authority noted that disabled people were at greater risk of death during the pandemic, which could have led to fewer disabled people in the population.

It added that excess deaths where the underlying cause of death was not Covid-19 “may also have affected the disabled population”.

Overall, the 2021 census data showed that 18.7% of females and 16.5% of males in England were disabled in 2021, while 22.3% of females and 19.8% of males were disabled in Wales.

Fresh data released on Wednesday showed a decrease in the percentage of disabled females and males in the intervening decade, mostly among those who were limited “a lot”.

(PA Graphics)

The overall percentage fell from 9.2% in 2011 to 7.8% in 2021 in females and from 9.0% to 7.1% in males, the ONS said.

Looking specifically at older people, those aged 90 years and above in England who were limited “a lot” by their disability fell 22.2 percentage points between 2011 and 2021.

In Wales the drop was 22.9 percentage points.

The ONS noted that a change in the wording of the census question may also account for differences.

It said that for older age groups, the visible prompt in the previous census question “include problems related to old age” was removed in the 2021 version, with the possible result that this might have reduced the proportion of older people who considered that they had a condition or illness.

Julie Stanborough, deputy director of data and analysis for social care and health at the ONS said the drop in older people who are disabled “may seem surprising”.

She added: “Sadly, many disabled people died in the Coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic, which may be one of the reasons.

“Another is that the wording of the question was changed from 2011, to bring it in line with the Equalities Act 2010 definition.

It is likely that some older people did not think of their age-related conditions as ones intended by the Act’s definition.”

Meanwhile, the figures also show there are sharp differences in levels of disability between the most deprived areas and the least deprived, though not just among older age groups.

Around a quarter (26.5%) of 46 to 49 year-olds in the most deprived areas of England indicated they were disabled, compared with just one in 10 (9.3%) in the least deprived areas.

There is a similarly large gap for 40 to 44 year-olds, with 21.6% in the most deprived areas saying they are disabled but only 8.1% in the least deprived.

This pattern continues through younger age groups, with disability levels among people aged 20-24 and 25-29 of around one in six in the most deprived areas (16.4% and 16.7% respectively), compared with around one in 10 in the least deprived (11.5% and 9.6%).

The ONS also observed a “short-term increase” in disability rates between the ages of 15 to 19 and 20 to 24, with a jump of at least 1.3 percentage points in all areas of England, regardless of deprivation.

Rates then fell between the ages of 20-24 and 25-29 in all areas except the most deprived.

Ms Stanborough said: “It is notable how significantly more prevalent disability is among younger people in deprived areas and the implications this may have for other aspects of their lives.”

This might reflect the inclusion of a reference to mental health conditions or illnesses in the 2021 census, which “may have contributed to the increase in disability seen in younger age groups”, the ONS said.

The census was completed by more than 24 million households across England and Wales on March 21 2021.

It takes place across the UK every 10 years and provides the most accurate estimate of all the people and households in the country.