When I wrote for this publication last July, the number of people living with Long Covid had reached one million, a grim milestone.
At the time I warned that Long Covid was “the hidden health crisis of the pandemic”. But it’s no longer hidden. It’s in plain sight. Each month, the tally of those living with the condition continues to creep up, so that one year on, the latest ONS figures estimate that this number has doubled to two million.
We know that many Brits, including frontline NHS key workers who contracted Long Covid while protecting others, have left the country in search of treatment in Europe which is currently unavailable here. Long Covid symptoms are also adversely affecting the day-to-day activities of 1.4 million people, with more than 400,000 of them reporting that their ability to go about their day-to-day activities had been ‘limited a lot’.
And yet, the UK government has failed to act.
In March 2022, the cross-party All-Party Parliamentary Group on Coronavirus, of which I am chair, released a report recommending the government commit £100 million a year in research funding into diagnostic and treatment pathways for Long Covid patients. So far, we’ve heard nothing. Treatment should be available in the UK and equally available in all parts of the UK. It shouldn’t be a ‘postcode lottery’, as both ourselves and the Royal College of Nursing have recently warned.
Economic impact of Long Covid
Long Covid isn’t just a health issue, it’s a looming economic iceberg. The most common symptoms are fatigue, shortness of breath, loss of smell and difficulty concentrating. It is translating into staff absences and lost working days, with consequences not just on personal finances but also on the UK economy and vital public services.
The APPG found that the NHS lost nearly two million days to Long Covid from March 2020 to September 2021.
But it’s not just NHS workers taking the hit. In February, a survey conducted by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development found that a quarter of UK employers cited Long Covid as one of the main causes of long-term sickness absence among their staff and this rings true with what we’ve heard at APPG live evidence sessions. Over the past two years, we’ve heard from witnesses who have such severe symptoms that they’re no longer able to work. For those who make it into work, it is reasonable to expect that their productivity would be seriously impacted.
While things are bad now, we can only expect them to get worse. Infection rates are rising rapidly again, and as cases continue to increase, so will the number of people living with the long-term impacts of the virus. Therefore, tackling Long Covid should be a priority for any of the Conservative leadership candidates claiming to be a safe pair of economic hands.
Not being able to work at any time is devastating, but not being able to work during a cost of living crisis, due to the long-term impacts of a virus which the government failed to manage responsibly, and then subsequently failed to provide any workplace guidance, infrastructure or treatment is unforgivable.
Introduce guidelines for employers
So alongside increased funding for the research and provision of treatments, we are calling on the government to:
- Set out employer guidelines: The government must urgently produce guidelines for employers in both the public and private sectors to manage the impact of the condition among their workforce, which should have happened before they lifted restrictions.
- Recognise Long Covid as an occupational disease: Since February 2021, the APPG has been calling on the UK government to recognise Long Covid as an occupational disease, but neither them nor the Health and Safety Executive have yet to class it, or Covid-19, as such. This is out of step with other European countries, including Austria, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Spain and Sweden.
- Launch a compensation scheme: The APPG urged the UK government to launch a compensation scheme for frontline and key workers who contracted the virus at work, often helping others, and are now living with the debilitating impacts of Long Covid. We asked for the scheme to go beyond current and existing sick pay schemes and to be specifically focused on those living with the condition. The APPG argued it should mirror the Armed Forces Compensation Scheme (AFCS), as well as recognising the relapsing nature of Long Covid.
Five months on, and they’re yet to heed our advice. But the government can no longer ignore the warning signs. This crisis is impacting millions of our people and that number is growing. They must act and we’ll keep fighting till they do.
Layla Moran is the Liberal Democrat Member of Parliament for Oxford West & Abingdon and Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Coronavirus
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