In every sphere of life across the UK for over a year the impacts of Covid-19 have been massive. However, as we edge nearer the date where the final level of government restrictions will be lifted there are indications that Covid-19 could have a far longer effect. As well as the economic impact of the pandemic which will be felt for years to come, evidence is showing that long Covid is affecting increasing numbers of people. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) has found that in May 2021 around one million people in the UK were affected by Covid- 19 symptoms that lasted longer than four weeks. Nearly two-thirds of these people reported experiencing a negative impact on their day-to-day activities. People of working age are among the groups most likely to be affected.
There has rightfully been increasing attention on long Covid and the impact that it is having on people’s lives but very little of this discussion to date has focused on the workplace. We, therefore, 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. The majority of these were key workers (79 per cent); people who faced higher levels of exposure to Covid-19 while keeping the country running during the pandemic.
Almost three in 10 respondents (29 per cent) had been experiencing long Covid symptoms for 12 months or more. This length of time is significant because in order to be protected under the disability provisions of the Equality Act 2010, 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. Employers also have a duty to take steps to make sure that disabled people can access jobs as easily as non-disabled people: known as the duty to make reasonable adjustments. Reasonable adjustments can include flexible working arrangements, longer rest breaks, specialist software or equipment. It is clear from our findings that workers with long Covid urgently need this protection, whether they have had symptoms for 12 months or not.
Workers reported experiencing a range of symptoms. On average each respondent reported having nine of the 21 long Covid symptoms we asked about and described the severity of their cumulative impact. Nine out of ten respondents experienced fatigue, with other common symptoms centred around problems with brain fog (72 per cent), shortness of breath (70 per cent), difficulty concentrating (62 per cent) and memory problems (54 per cent). Over four in five respondents (83 per cent) reported experiencing at least one of a range of pain-related symptoms with around one third (32 per cent) experiencing depression.
Respondents also described the poor treatment that they experienced at work because they had long Covid. Over half (52 per cent) had experienced some form of discrimination or disadvantage. Workers were faced with disbelief and suspicion, with around one fifth (19 per cent) having their employer question the impact of their symptoms and one in eight (13 per cent) facing questions from their employer about whether they had long Covid at all. 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. For around one in six respondents (18 per cent), the amount of sick leave they had taken had triggered absence management or HR processes and one in 11 respondents (9 per cent) had used up all of their sick leave and had been told there would be negative consequences if they took more. One in 20 respondents (5 per cent) had been forced out of their jobs because they had long Covid.
Trade unions have worked throughout the pandemic to keep workplaces safe and protect workers. We have challenged employers and the government over inadequate sick pay that makes it difficult for low paid workers to self-isolate, failures to provide adequate personal protective equipment (PPE) and testing, and the urgent need for investment in safety regulation and enforcement.
Unions have played a major part in keeping workers who have contracted Covid-19 at home and not in the workplace and protecting those at higher risk. Thousands of union health and safety reps have spent more hours each week carrying out their role compared to previous years, some doing so in their own time. Unions have also worked to recruit and train more safety reps, with approximately 110,000 now in workplaces across Britain.
It is clear from our findings that too many workers have been and continue to be failed by their employers. Several workers described contracting Covid-19 at work, with some expressing the anger they felt at the inadequate provision of personal protective equipment (PPE) and lack of attention to other safety measures which they felt had led to transmission. The fact that they now face negative treatment from the same employers because of their long Covid symptoms, adds another layer of injustice to their experience.
A public inquiry is urgently needed to ensure that we never repeat the failures that shaped the experience of frontline workers during the pandemic. This must include examination of the experiences of workers with long Covid. A recommendation by the Industrial Injuries Advisory Council on Covid-19 prescription is also expected: this recognition could provide workers with financial support and assistance in pursuing claims.
Covid-19 has exposed huge inequalities in the world of work. However, if we do not take steps now to ensure that workers with long Covid are properly protected, we run the very real risk of new, long lasting inequalities being created.