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Long covid raises workplace disability and discrimination concerns
21/06/2021
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London underground during covid pandemic

Long covid should be recognised as a disability under the UK Equality Act, campaigners and union leaders argue, as new polling suggests workers are experiencing discrimination at work due to the ongoing symptoms of covid-19.

Data published by the Office for National Statistics on 4 June showed 376,000 people in the UK have experienced symptoms of long covid for at least 12 months. In a separate survey of more than 3,500 people, a new TUC report reveals that nearly three in 10 (29%) workers have experienced covid symptoms lasting longer than one year.

More than nine in 10 (95%) workers who contracted covid have been left with ongoing symptoms, including brain fog (72%), shortness of breath (70%), difficulty concentrating (62%), and memory problems (54%), according to the survey results.

Despite the well-publicised existence of long covid, over half (52%) of survey respondents reported experiencing some form of workplace discrimination or disadvantage due to their ongoing condition.

Around one in five (19%) of workers said their employer had questioned the impact of their symptoms; one in eight (13%) faced questions about whether they had long covid at all; and one in 20 (5%) respondents claimed to have been forced out of their jobs because they had long covid. 

Respondents were also concerned about their long-term job security, with around one in six (18%) workers reporting that the amount of sick leave they had been forced to take due to their long covid symptoms had triggered absence management or HR processes.

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”. “Long term” defines the impairment as lasted or will last for at least 12 months and can come and go or is likely to last for the rest of the person's life, according to ACAS guidance.

Campaigners and unions argue that while many workers with long covid already meet this criteria, formally extending current Equality Act 2010 protections would ensure employers cannot discriminate against those suffering from the long-term effects of the disease. The additional protections would also ensure employers make reasonable adjustments that remove, reduce, or prevent any disadvantages faced by workers with long covid face.  

Long covid is disabling young, previously healthy workers

Lesley Macniven, chair of the Long Covid Support Group, said: “Even those with ‘mild’ covid can suffer daily with fluctuating symptoms, exhausted and alone. Promises we’ll ‘just get better’ have been proved otherwise. A year on we need legally enforceable guidance for employers and government – informed by unions, occupational health, and patient groups with significant lived experience managing long covid.

“Patients need time to convalesce, then recuperate through a very gradual, flexible phased return to work, over months, to achieve a sustainable return,” she continued. “Long covid is disabling young, previously healthy workers. This key step is needed to take the effects of long covid seriously, enable rehabilitation, and protect dedicated workers from discrimination due to poor understanding of the condition.

In addition, the TUC is calling on the UK government to recognise covid-19 as an occupational disease, entitling employees and their dependents to protection and compensation if they contract the virus while working.

More than three-quarters (79%) of respondents to the TUC survey identified as key workers, with the majority employed in either education or health and social care, highlighting how frontline workers have been disproportionately affected by long covid. Over two-thirds (68%) of respondents were women

“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,” said TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady. “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.”

The union body recently warned that UK workers are being forced to “needlessly” return to their employers’ places of business in breach of official government guidance, and that the number of people who have died after contracting covid-19 at work is being “massively under-reported” by employers.

The National Institutes of Health in the United States has announced a $1·15bn initiative to support research into long covid. Estimates of long covid among Americans range from 10 to 30% of those who contract covid-19, or 1.5 to 4.5% of all American workers.

In addition to the commonly reported long covid symptoms, a recently published paper by US researchers suggests covid infections may increase a person’s risk for Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and other brain disorders. An international study, funded by the Alzheimer’s Association, has been launched to look at the longer-term effects of the virus on the brains and nervous systems of survivors as they age.