What has been the impact of COVID-19 on occupational disease claims

It has been more than 12 months since the first national lockdown began. With the roadmap out of lockdown set, we reflect on 2020 and consider what lies ahead in 2021 and beyond. 

The impacts of the global pandemic cannot be underestimated. We have seen a decline in occupational disease claims, and a dramatic shift from physical to remote court hearings. The courts are now facing huge backlogs which for many practitioners is of great concern. However, we have also witnessed a greater acceptance of technological solutions and adapted to new ways of working.

Decline in occupational disease claims

Information derived from Compensation Recovery Unit (CRU) registration figures show a decline in employers’ liability (EL) claims, including occupational disease claims, of 45% during 2020. The impact on disease claims is understandable; at the start of the first national lockdown, and probably more so during the last lockdown, those working in the healthcare sector have been fighting on the front-line to save lives. 

From a stark perspective, COVID-19 causes greatest risk to the elderly or those suffering with pre-existing conditions, including those with respiratory diseases. This has undoubtedly resulted in the death of many these people. Further, vast numbers of patients have had their access to medical treatment curtailed and as such, diagnoses and treatment of other diseases has been delayed for many. Conversely, the NHS did introduce some interim measures to allow for greater flexibility in the management of cancer during the pandemic and which resulted in immunotherapy, previously not sanctioned as an NHS treatment for mesothelioma, to be provided to such patients. Immunotherapy has been offered to some mesothelioma patients on the basis that it is less immunosuppressive and mitigates the likelihood of a patient becoming seriously ill at this time. The next review date has been extended until 1 July 2021. 

New ways of working

The effects of the pandemic have also had a significant impact on how claims have been managed and progressed. Many companies, including some law firms and insurers, were not set up to enable workers to effectively work from home. 

During the initial lockdown, court hearings were delayed and medico-legal appointments were cancelled or postponed. Now 12 months on, more cases are being dealt with remotely and more doctors are receptive to remote appointments and examinations. However, in many disease claims, physical examinations are essential. 

Unfortunately, there are still significant backlogs in the court system, although the Masters Mesothelioma List in the Royal Courts of Justice is moving, albeit slowly. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced parties to consider technological solutions to deal with working from home, such as remote mediations over Zoom and the virtual sharing of court documents. Only time will tell whether these changes become permanent.

Philippa Craven, Partner

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Long-COVID claims

Mental health has been in the spotlight and employers have had to introduce safeguards to monitor and tend to the welfare of staff. We previously predicted that there will be an increase in disease claims relating to occupational stress and we expect to see such claims emerging towards the end of 2021.

Only last month, the Industrial Injuries Advisory Council (IIAC) published it’s paper, “COVID-19 and occupation” in which it does not, presently, recommend that COVID-19 becomes a prescribed disease for any given occupation. This is contrary to the call by some Members of Parliament for long-COVID to be recognised as an occupational disease in respect of health care professionals. The IIAC found that there is a clear association between several occupations and the risk of death or serious illness from COVID-19 but considerable further scientific evidence and data will be needed before it can give any definitive recommendations.

2021 and beyond – what will it hold for occupational disease claims?

Increase in work-related upper limb disorders and stress-related claims

  • We expect to see an increased number of claims being brought by claimants relating to injuries sustained whilst working at home, whether physical or psychological.

Hand arm vibration syndrome (HAVS)

  • In recent years, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) have been hot on the heels of employers in prosecuting for breaches related to Hand Arm Vibration Syndrome (HAVS). We expect to see an increase in civil injury claims following prosecutions by the HSE.

Pollution-related claims

  • In December 2020, Southwark Coroners Court found that air pollution made a “material contribution” to the tragic death of Ella Adoo Kissi Debrah. Further, emerging research and analysis shows “compelling” but not yet conclusive evidence linking air pollution with an increase in coronavirus infections and deaths. It may become easier to establish evidence that an increase in air pollution can be directly attributed to increased vulnerability to respiratory viruses such as COVID-19.

Fundamental dishonesty

  • In light of the economic downturn from the COVID-19 pandemic and Qualified One Way Costs Shifting (QOCS), there is arguably fertile ground for an increase in fabricated, misrepresented and exaggerated claims. We anticipate that findings of fundamental dishonesty, both in relation to lower and higher value claims, are likely to increase.

Read other items in Occupational Disease Brief - April 2021

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