A recent study has uncovered that around two million people may have suffered from long-lasting symptoms after contracting coronavirus - a condition dubbed “long Covid”. Responding to its findings, Yvonne Clarke MBE, managing director of Pathways Community Interest Company, discusses the implications for employers and their workforces.
Within the React survey of half a million adults in England, it was found that roughly one third of people to have reported coronavirus symptoms [37 per cent] have had one or more symptoms persist for a minimum of 12 weeks. 15 per cent of respondents suffered from three or more persistent symptoms for the same period of time.
It is managing the long-term consequences of Covid which is proving to be a significant challenge not solely for those suffering from the virus, but also their employers. In the wake of the problem, Pathways CIC boss Yvonne Clarke MBE has raised that those suffering from lasting symptoms can suffer hindrances to their performance and productivity, and yet there has been little action taken at ministerial level to address the scale of the problem.
She said: “This [long-lasting symptoms] can mean that people may not be able to work for months or are in work and their performance and productivity are hindered. Whilst the NHS has recognised and risen to the challenge, setting up long Covid clinics across the country [totalling over 80 long Covid assessment services across England], it is concerning that none of the messaging at ministerial level is focused on long Covid and its possible impact on individuals, employers, and economic recovery. The overarching burden to support people weighs heavily with employers and GPs.”
Pathways CIC has carried out its own research into long Covid with its client base, which has found that some people are unable to work while struggling with their symptoms and cannot therefore go back to their places of work. Meanwhile, the React study indicates that the most common symptoms were tiredness and fatigue, as well as shortness of breath.
Such long-term problems have been found to be more common in older women, with characteristics such as higher weight, smoking, lower incomes, underlying health conditions and previous hospitalisation with Covid earmarked as factors which lead to a higher chance of longer-lasting symptoms.
This has meant that employers have had to be flexible in offering long Covid sufferers reduced working hours, and in circumstances where employers have not shown a willingness to be flexible, some who have experienced long Covid have found themselves being made redundant.
Much of Pathways’ work in recent months has involved collaborating with employers to implement strategies to support staff who have been affected, as Clarke explains.
“Employers are needing to be incredibly flexible. This is not a one size fits all situation. Our team at Pathways are supporting employers to understand how the condition is impacting on their employees, ensuring employers are empowered to support their staff and ensure employers are meeting their statutory responsibilities under health and safety, and employment legislation. We are working with employers to put in place appropriate strategies to support their staff.”
She continued: “What we have seen during the health crisis is local money being moved to support Covid-19 efforts, with more focus nationally on quick wins to reduce unemployment and the NHS focusing on essential services and sickness absence hidden through furlough or working from home. Therefore, there is a risk of losing sight of the need to mitigate the human and financial cost of sickness absence, pushing the sickness absence crisis further into the long grass.”
With cases of the new Delta variant of Covid reportedly on the rise, Clarke is concerned that the real impact of long Covid - which remains a relatively unknown condition in itself - is yet to be seen.
In response, Clarke believes that at the government level, greater levels of action should be taken to help employers prepare for the possible consequences.
“With Covid Delta variant cases rising significantly, are we yet to see the true impact of long Covid? And what does this really mean for economic recovery? Where is the modelling at a national level to help employers understand what they should be preparing for? We need ministerial level intervention now to support economic recovery and stop a significant amount of people moving out of work onto health-related benefits, which would come at a significant cost both on a personal level, and across the economy. Doing nothing does not feel like an option.”
The government has pledged £50 million in funding into long Covid research, amid a need for more studies to build on emerging evidence about the condition and its impact.
Even now, there is no standard definition of the severity and range of symptoms which can be classified as long Covid, so there may be many more people who are suffering from a mild ongoing symptom who may not consider themselves long Covid sufferers, which further clouds our understanding of the true impact of the condition.
The React programme’s director, Imperial College London’s Professor Paul Elliott, commented: "Long Covid is still poorly understood but we hope through our research that we can contribute to better identification and management of this condition, which our data and others' suggest may ultimately affect millions of people in the UK alone."