Long COVID as an occupational disease

We first discussed the issue of long COVID in one of our webinars held during the first lockdown. At that time, we talked about how special clinics were being set up to help those suffering with ongoing symptoms. There are currently 69 clinics across England now offering specialist help.

What is long COVID? 

Some one in ten people who have had coronavirus have reported experiencing ongoing health issues more than 12 weeks later. These range from pain, fatigue, breathlessness, anxiety and stress, stomach problems and an inability to concentrate (brain fog). Long COVID symptoms can be present irrespective of whether people had severe or mild symptoms of the virus itself. There are reports of some people continuing to experience debilitating symptoms more than nine months on. 

Call for compensation

A group of Members of Parliament (MPs) and peers have called for the UK Government to recognise long COVID as an occupational disease and to introduce a compensation scheme to provide financial support. Earlier this month, the Government of Spain approved a decree recognising COVID-19 as an occupational disease among health professionals infected on duty and allowing those individuals to access economic assistance. Similar steps have been taken in other European countries, such as Germany, Belgium and Denmark.

The campaign in the UK is being led by Layla Moran, MP, who calls long COVID the “hidden health crisis of the pandemic” and has said that a compensation scheme, similar to that in place for military veterans, would enable eligible recipients to receive financial assistance dependent upon their circumstances and needs. Moran has the support of the Chair of the British Medical Association (BMA), Chaand Nagpaul, who has said that a scheme should be implemented urgently to support healthcare staff and their families.

Government response to long COVID

The UK Government’s immediate response to long COVID is to inject funding of £18.5 million into research. Matt Hancock, the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, has said that in order to best help individuals suffering with long COVID, we need a better understanding of it and to identify treatments and therapies to combat it. 

The funding will kick-start four large-scale research projects where scientists and doctors will work with affected individuals to better understand the impacts of the virus. The largest project will be led by Imperial College London and will involve people who have taken part in the REACT (Real Time Assessment of Community Transmission) study. The purpose of the project is to analyse data to try and determine why some people get long COVID and others do not and then, from biological tests, to learn more about the cause of persisting symptoms and consider possible treatments. 

As yet, the UK Government has not responded formally to the call for any compensation scheme or to ratify the disease as an occupational disease. Any such ratification, as has been the case in, for example, Spain, would most likely be limited to those front-line and key workers in the healthcare sector. The ongoing research should provide the data to better assess the financial implications of any scheme, should the UK Government ultimately adopt the proposal. In the meantime, contraction of the virus as a result of an employer’s negligence and/or breach of statutory duty will enable an employee to consider a claim for damages, irrespective of whether the classification of occupational disease has been made, but, causation, legal and medical, will need to be very carefully assessed.

Read other items in Occupational Disease Brief - April 2021

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