TUC calls for long Covid to be recognised as a disability 

  • 22 Jun 2021

The condition needs to recognised as  an occupational disease, to give workers access to legal protections and compensation.

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The call came as the TUC published an in-depth report on workers' experiences of long Covid during the pandemic. More than 3,500 workers responded to a TUC survey on the impact of long Covid on people's daily working lives.

The survey reveals that, of those surveyed:

  • Nearly 3 in 10 (29 per cent) have experienced symptoms lasting longer than a year.
  • More than 9 in 10 (95 per cent) have been left with ongoing symptoms.
  • A clear majority had experienced side effects including brain fog (72 per cent), shortness of breath (70 per cent), difficulty concentrating (62 per cent) and memory problems (54 per cent).
  • Over half (52 per cent) had experienced some form of discrimination or disadvantage due to their condition.

The report highlighted how frontline workers have been disproportionately affected by long Covid. Over three-quarters (79 per cent) of those who responded to the TUC's survey identify themselves as key workers, with the majority working in either education or health and social care. More than two-thirds (68 per cent) of respondents were women.

Long Covid in the workplace

The report revealed the extent of discrimination in the workplace towards those with long Covid. Over half (52 per cent) of respondents said they had experienced some form of discrimination or disadvantage due to their condition. Workers told the TUC how they were faced with disbelief and suspicion when they disclosed their symptoms:

  • Around a fifth (19 per cent) said their employer had questioned the impact of their symptoms.
  • One in eight (13 per cent) faced questions from their employer about whether they had long Covid at all.
  • One in 20 respondents (5 per cent) said they had been forced out of their jobs altogether because they had long Covid.

Respondents described the difficulties that they faced trying to work while experiencing a range of long Covid symptoms. One person, who contracted Covid-19 at work, said that when their employer went ahead with an international event in the first wave of the pandemic:

"I was still expected to work long hours, handle stressful situations in impossible timeframes, find and fill in forms (which I struggled to do because of cognitive issues), and spend hours on Zoom calls when I struggled to talk and breathe, resulting in extreme chest pain, shortness of breath, exhaustion and severe symptom relapses."

Respondents were also concerned about what the future might hold for them at work given the amount of sick leave they had been forced to take due to their long Covid symptoms. Around one in six respondents (18 per cent) said the amount of sick leave they had taken had triggered absence management or HR processes.

New rights and protections for those with long Covid

The TUC is calling for the government to urgently recognise long Covid as a disability under the Equality Act. The Equality Act 2010 defines disability as a "physical or mental impairment…[that] has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on [their] ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities". Government guidance makes clear that 'long-term' means 12 months or more.

The TUC says that many who have long Covid already meet this criteria and should therefore be protected under the law rather than forced to go through the stress of employment tribunals.

Extending Equality Act 2010 protections so they cover workers with long Covid would ensure employers cannot legally discriminate against them. It would also put a duty on employers to make reasonable adjustments that remove, reduce or prevent any disadvantages workers with long Covid face, as for any other enduring condition or disability.

In addition, the union body is calling on ministers to recognise Covid-19 as an occupational disease – entitling employees and their dependents to protection and compensation if they contracted the virus while working.

Frances O'Grady, TUC general secretary said:

"Many of the workers who have carried us through the pandemic are now living with debilitating symptoms of long Covid. And we're beginning to hear troubling stories of a massive wave of discrimination against people with long Covid. It's time to recognise this condition properly – and make sure workers who are living with long Covid get the support they need to do their jobs.

"Long Covid must be recognised as a disability. That would mean workers are protected by the Equality Act, and would have a right to get reasonable adjustments at work. And Covid-19 should be designated as an occupational disease. That would allow workers who contracted Covid-19 at work and are living with the consequences to claim the compensation they are due.

"Employers must also act. They should make sure they make reasonable adjustments for workers with long Covid, and complete specific risk assessments to make sure workers with long Covid are safe at work."

Respondent, 46-55, female, North West England

"I travel by public transport four hours per day to and from work in addition to my eight hours shift. It is extremely difficult to focus on my job due to extreme fatigue and joint pains at work"

Respondent, 46-55, female, key worker, South East England

"During the pandemic we were low on PPE and therefore we were not provided with enough or the correct PPE. I caught Covid twice as a result of this. I had to sit with a Covid-positive patient for ten hours wearing only a surgical mask and a basic white apron. Since October I have been suffering with chest pain that has gotten gradually worse. I have had to take unpaid time off work."

The TUC conducted research using a self-selecting online survey in order to better understand the experiences of workers who have, or have had, ongoing symptoms after having Covid-19 – commonly known as 'long Covid'. The survey was open between 3 April and 27 May 2021 and was promoted on social media, through affiliated unions and Long Covid support groups. We received 3,557 responses from people who self-reported that they had had Covid-19. Of these, 3,296 were from people who self-reported that they had Long Covid.

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