Long COVID Is Still A Significant Public Health Risk
Opinion

Long COVID Is Still A Significant Public Health Risk

By Quinn Roache, Disabled and LGBT+ Workers Policy Officer, Trades Union Congress 15 Nov 2021
Disability, Discrimination, Health
Credit: Noah / Unsplash

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The Office for National Statistics estimates that nearly one million people in the UK had ‘Long COVID’ in July 2021This has added to the rising concern that, even if we ‘learn to live with the virus’, there will be a long-term impact on society and, for those who contract Long COVID, there are life changing implications. 

Long COVID is where symptoms of Covid-19 are reported to have lasted for longer than four weeks but there is still a lot that is unknown about Long COVID, including why it’s triggered, who will get it and how long it will take to make a full recovery, if one is made at all. 

But what we do know is extremely concerning: there are 21 usual symptoms of Long COVID which range from fatigue and brain fog to less common symptoms including acute kidney injury and cardiovascular symptoms, and we know that people tend to have multiple symptoms.

Access to work is essential for people to live in dignity and put food on the table

A recent TUC survey and report into Long COVID I wrote found that, on average, respondents had nine symptoms that fluctuated. This makes it really difficult to make plans about returning to work, even with a phased return. Many respondents to the survey reported relapsing after they thought they were fit to return to work. 

The survey found that nine in ten respondents experienced fatigue, over seven in ten experienced brain fog, seven in ten had shortness of breath, over six in ten had difficulty concentrating and just over half had memory problems. The more you look into Long COVID, the more concerning it is.

Importantly, almost three in ten respondents had been experiencing Long COVID symptoms for 12 months or more. This is significant because in order to be protected under the disability provisions of the Equality Act, a person has to have a condition that has a “substantial” and “long-term impact” on their ability to do normal day-to-day activities. Long term is usually taken to mean 12 months or more.

Disabled people are protected by the Equality Act from discrimination, harassment and victimisation. Crucially, employers have a duty to make reasonable adjustments for disabled workers which can include flexible working arrangements, longer rest breaks, specialist software or equipment. 

Despite the fact that many workers who have Long COVID should be protected by the Equality Act, it is clear that they are not receiving those protections in any meaningful way. 

Over half of those who responded to the survey had experienced some form of discrimination or disadvantage. Workers were faced with disbelief and suspicion, with around one fifth having their employer question the impact of their symptoms and one in eight having been questioned by their employer about whether they had Long COVID at all.

If the government is unable to eliminate Covid-19, it can at least protect workers’ livelihoods

Workers with Long COVID told us what they asked their employer to do to help them return to work. Many asked for flexibility. Respondents stated flexibility would help them manage their fluctuating conditions such as ‘longer/more frequent breaks’ or ‘amended duties.’ Sadly these changes had the highest discrepancy between being asked for and employers actually putting them in place.

Access to work is essential for people to live in dignity and put food on the table. A real concern that my research found was the amount of sick leave workers had been forced to take due to their Long COVID symptoms and the consequences of this. For example, around one in six respondents reported the amount of sick leave they had taken had triggered absence management or HR processes and one in 11 respondents had used up all of their sick leave and had been told there would be negative consequences if they took more.

Most worryingly, one in 20 respondents had been forced out of their jobs because they had Long COVID. This isn’t right: workers who have Long COVID need their jobs to be protected. If my survey results hold true and 30% of the one million people who had Long COVID in July still have it, there are 300,000 people whose livelihoods are at risk. 

Currently, in order to be covered by the disability provision of the Equality Act, workers with Long COVID would have to take an Employment Tribunal and, on a case-by-case basis, prove their condition would have a substantial long-term adverse effect on the worker’s ability to carry out day-to-day activities. The financial and emotional load makes an employment tribunal case a significant burden for anyone, let alone workers who are experiencing Long COVID symptoms. Workers should not have to take an employment tribunal to prove that Long COVID has a substantial and long-term impact on their ability to do normal day-to-day activities. 

The government needs to step up and strengthen the Equality Act 2010 by specifying that Long COVID is a disability. This would mean employers would need to put in reasonable adjustments for people with Long COVID and protect them from discrimination, harassment and victimisation. And that’s what we’re calling on them to do: to recognise Long COVID as a deemed disability in law. 

If the government is unable to eliminate Covid-19, it can at least protect workers’ livelihoods.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of EachOther.

Find out more in the latest EachOther video exploring Long COVID and human rights, made with help from Long COVID Scotland. 

Further resources

Trades Union Congress
Trades Union Congress

The TUC exists to make the working world a better place for everyone. We bring together more than 5.5 million working people who make up our 48 member unions.

Find out more
Office for National Statistics
Office for National Statistics

ONS are the UK’s largest independent producer of official statistics and its recognised national statistical institute.

Find out more
Long COVID survey - TUC
Long COVID survey - TUC

The TUC conducted an online survey to better understand workers’ experiences and make evidence-based recommendations. Over 3,500 people who had had Covid-19 responded: around 3,300 of whom self-reported having long Covid. Read the results in full here

Read the full research report by the TUC
Body Politic guide for journalists
Body Politic guide for journalists

EachOther uses Body Politic's guide as a reference tool for journalists and advocates shaping news coverage of long-term symptoms of Covid-19.

For the full guide

About The Author

Quinn Roache Disabled and LGBT+ Workers Policy Officer, Trades Union Congress

Quinn Roache is the TUC’s Disabled and LGBT+ Workers Policy Officer working within their Equality and Strategy Department. Previously he worked for the Equality and Human Rights Commission on high profile projects including their Pregnancy and Maternity Work Programme and Home Care Inquiry which drew national attention to key issues of discrimination and shaped national debate. He has led on community engagement projects on a variety of themes including the UNCRPD and increasing LGBT+ hate crime reporting. More recently, at the TUC, he has produced research looking at the disability employment and pay gaps, the impact of Covid-19 on disabled workers, the impact of Long COVID on workers and research into the experiences of sexual harassment disabled women have at work.

Quinn Roache is the TUC’s Disabled and LGBT+ Workers Policy Officer working within their Equality and Strategy Department. Previously he worked for the Equality and Human Rights Commission on high profile projects including their Pregnancy and Maternity Work Programme and Home Care Inquiry which drew national attention to key issues of discrimination and shaped national debate. He has led on community engagement projects on a variety of themes including the UNCRPD and increasing LGBT+ hate crime reporting. More recently, at the TUC, he has produced research looking at the disability employment and pay gaps, the impact of Covid-19 on disabled workers, the impact of Long COVID on workers and research into the experiences of sexual harassment disabled women have at work.