I beg to move,
That this House has considered the impact of long covid on the UK workforce.
I thank the Backbench Business Committee for allowing us to hold this updated debate on long covid. I also thank my co-sponsors, some of whom, I am sad to say, are at home ill with covid and very much wanted to be here today. Also the fact that the debate has moved weeks has not helped. For those watching at home, I have been contacted by several Members who are very sorry that they are not able to be here. I also want to put on record my thanks to the many hundreds of people who, over the years, have contacted the all-party group on coronavirus with their personal stories, many of which are very heart warming, but also moving and worrying because it is a debilitating condition. What I say to all of them is: “We hear you, you have not been forgotten and we will continue to fight for you.”
I want to recognise the actions that the Government have taken so far. I was pleased that, after the first debate we had on the issue in January 2021, the Government made some £18.5 million available for research into long covid, including treatment, and delivered even more funding in the summer, which is incredibly welcome. In that debate, I also welcomed the new dedicated long covid clinics and the publishing of guidance to medical professionals by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, the Scottish Intercollegiate Guidelines Network and the Royal College of General Practitioners. However, despite that welcome action, it has felt, over the past eight months, that long covid has totally dropped off the radar and, on this issue, there has been very little debate.
I thank the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully) for coming to the Chamber to answer this debate. I believe that it is the first time that the Department for Business Energy and Industrial Strategy has answered in the Chamber on this. I will focus my remarks on the effect that long covid has had on the workforce because our belief is that this is a looming crisis that we need to think ahead about and that it would be wrong for us just to focus on the medical side— there are broader implications here.
Although there are many understandable reasons why this matter may have dropped off the radar, including the cost of living crisis and the war in Ukraine, I argue that these things are very much linked. How are we going to have a strong and productive economy if large swathes of our workforce are struggling to do the jobs that they are meant to be doing? How can we help them to recover?
Over this past year, we have had more information and learned more about long covid, although it is worth saying that there is still no cure. There are treatment plans that can help with symptoms, but the past year has been awful for many, including Andrew, a headteacher whom I spoke about in the debate a year ago, who received multiple written warnings about his inability to do the job in the day. I went back to him and asked how he was. He said:
“I made the difficult decision to resign from my post as a headteacher, so my limited energies could focus on coming to terms with my illness rather than continuing to face dismissal from a career that I had committed the past 25 years to and one that I dearly love.”
I also got an email from Nell, one of my constituents, who is a doctor. She said:
“I adore being a hospital doctor. I love my patients and I trained for years to do this. It’s been nearly two years of struggling with my health after covid, and while I continue to slowly recover, I don’t know if I can do this much longer. I’m so very sorry—I feel that I have let you down writing this.”
To Nell, I say that I do not believe that she has let anyone down, but I think that, to an extent, the Government have let her down.
I thank the hon. Member for giving way and for her excellent speech. I also thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting the debate. She has raised a couple of cases that she has heard about. I have been in touch a lot with Sam, a carer in my constituency. At the very beginning when she had long covid, people did not understand the condition and it was not taken seriously, and it has affected her ability to work ever since. Does the hon. Member agree that, as well as dealing with the health side and getting more research on how the condition affects people so differently, it is important to have guidance for employers—she will probably come on to this—on how to deal with this and how to support those who may have long covid through that very difficult period? As we do not know how long the condition lasts, we need a proper long-term strategy for those who are affected and for their families.
The hon. Member hits the nail on the head. People can recover, and very often do, but the way to help them do that is very badly explained to employers right now. Indeed, I will come on to talk in some detail about that.
Many people were told, especially at the beginning, that long covid was something that they were making up. They were told that it was all in their head. I have a research paper here that shows that scans have been done on people’s chests and the reason they were suffering from breathlessness was that the tissue was fundamentally damaged. This is very much a real disease, which now needs a real response.
It is not just public sector workers who have dealt with this. I spoke to Rebecca, who gave evidence to the all-party parliamentary group. She was a fitness instructor, Madam Deputy Speaker. You would think that a fitness instructor would be very healthy and would have very good lungs—before the pandemic, anyway. She used to teach 14 high-intensity classes a week and ran her own business. Now long covid means that she is in bed 60% of the time and describes being
“unable to return to work, and to be the mum, wife or friend I once was”.
It is utterly heartbreaking. We now need to accept that, if we are going to live with covid, we also have to live with long covid. In the evidence sessions that the APPG took in December and January, we heard how the condition is still severely impacting the lives and livelihoods of people across the country. They described how the condition has left them unable to work, sometimes unable to move, forcing them into long periods of absence from work, dipping into their savings and doing anything to stay afloat—something that is much more difficult now with the cost of living crisis.
A study released this month by Queen Mary University concluded that becoming infected with covid increases the risk of economic hardship, especially if the individual develops long covid. Those individuals describe a patchwork of uneven availability when it comes to long covid clinics and many are desperate for treatment. We heard from one nurse, for example, who has spent thousands of pounds going to Germany to get treatment that she is not able to access here. Public sector workers gave their lives for us. When we were all allowed to be at home, they went in, and they are the ones, according to Office for National Statistics surveys, who have the highest prevalence of long covid. I believe that we owe them so much more than they have had so far.
Unsurprisingly, though, it is not just about public services. We have 1.4 million people across the country experiencing self-reported long covid symptoms. That is 2.4% of the population and that cuts across every single sector, not just the public sector.
In the hospitality sector, which, as the Minister will know, is already struggling, 2.6% of workers have long covid. If we take the 3 million workforce estimate from UKHospitality, that equates to 70,000 workers unable to do their jobs as they did before. In retail, it is 2.3%, which equates to just under 70,000 workers; for personal service, such as beauticians, it is a bit less at 6,000, but still 2.1%. Those are big numbers in sectors that are already struggling post pandemic and struggling with workers’ visas following Brexit. They do not need this.
I congratulate the hon. Lady and her colleagues on securing this important debate. Does she agree that it is not only the people who have had long covid who suffer, but their family members who have to care for them? My constituent Julie Wells has had a working life of nearly 40 years. Her teenage daughter, on a second dose of covid, has been left with totally debilitating symptoms and now needs constant care. Julie hopes at best to get back to part-time work, but she may not. That is a full-time person lost to the workforce because of caring for a family member.
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. The caring responsibilities are greatly increased, as is the prevalence in children. I was alerted by my hon. Friend the Member for St Albans (Daisy Cooper) to a case of a parent who is asking for dispensation for her child from taking examinations because she has missed so many days of school. I am talking to the Education Secretary separately about that point, but long covid affects the entire family, not just the workforce.
Some 1.5 million people have long covid, but 989,000 people say that those long covid symptoms adversely affect their day-to-day activities and 281,000 people report that their ability to undertake their day-to-day activities had been “limited a lot”. That often means they must take part-time instead of full-time work, and sadly it often means they are unable to recover well because they are pushed to try to get back to work.
The effect on business is now being better documented. 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. For small businesses, the effects can be devastating. The Federation of Small Businesses has shared guidance on how to help with statutory sick pay and arranging for temporary staff cover.
However, I am concerned that the ACAS guidance right now is pretty sparse; I hope the Minister might take that up. The guidance signposts to other websites but does not make it clear that one of the most important things to do with long covid is often to let someone rest. People say “listen to your body” when it comes to medical things; I am afraid that with long covid that is actually the treatment plan.
If someone is forced or encouraged into work by their employer—often inadvertently, if they do not have proper guidance—it can set them back and cause even more problems down the line. One of our main calls is for employer guidance, but I also urge the Government to look at the ACAS website, for example, and ensure that it is clear to employers how they can help and support their employees to stay at home and rest as long as they need to, so that they come back and we do not unnecessarily lose people from the workforce.
A legal expert speaking to the APPG described the lack of access to financial support and said,
“lots of people with Long Covid find themselves starting for the very first time to be involved in the obstacle course which is our benefit system”.
It is clear that long covid is having a serious impact on the ability of our workforce to do their jobs, and we can only expect that to get worse as the virus spreads through the population again and we get more cases of long covid.
What can we do? The all-party group has released a report on long covid this week; if the Minister has not seen it, I would be happy to give him a copy. In it, we make 10 recommendations, but I will highlight just a few. First, the Government need urgently to prioritise research treatments for long covid patients. We welcome the money already committed, but we would contrast it with the United States, for example, where $1 billion has been earmarked for this, because the US recognises the effect long covid could have on its economy and sees this as an investment. I urge the UK Government to find similar ambition.
Secondly, we call for employer guidelines, set out by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy in conjunction with the Department of Health and Social Care, to help all businesses to help their employees back into work. Thirdly, we call for the UK Government to launch a compensation scheme for all those frontline workers currently living with long covid, similar to the armed forces compensation scheme.
The Minister will perhaps be aware that the process for the designation of an occupational disease is ongoing; we are hopeful that that will report back soon, and we are discussing that with the Department for Work and Pensions. That designation could be game-changing, particularly in those public sector areas where prevalence was incredibly high, such as education, the health and social care workforce and public transport, which had some of the highest prevalences of covid, particularly at the beginning.
The Office for National Statistics survey points to where we need to look. However, I urge the Government not to wait for that designation. Many of those workers, as in my examples, have already left the professions. They are leaving the sector or deciding to take early retirement, and this is a time when our economy needs a boost. It needs those experienced workers. At the moment, we are not paying any attention to that.
The main reason we secured this debate was to urge the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to look ahead and take this seriously. The best thing we can do right now is to help hard-pressed people in the UK in our fight against Putin, against the cost of living crisis and all the rest. If we are to get our economy back on its feet, we must get our workers back at their desks. If those workers have long covid, there is currently very little out there to support them or those businesses that desperately want them back.
I think we can get everybody in with a reasonable amount of time, if everyone limits their comments to a maximum of eight minutes.
Forewarned is forearmed, as they say, Madam Deputy Speaker. It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran). I congratulate her not only on securing this debate, but on her leadership of the APPG, which she chairs exceptionally well. Today’s debate and the report that underpins it reflect that. I also thank all those who have provided evidence to the APPG, particularly on the latest report. Their stories are moving and quite shocking. In addition, I thank the secretariat, who do a fantastic job of providing support to the group.
This Covid pandemic is far from over. I am wearing my mask, and we know we have an outbreak in Parliament, with a number of MPs currently off with covid. It is far from over. We are seeing case numbers ticking upwards, hospitalisations also on the rise and, sadly, increased deaths. Once again, we have seen the burden of disease from this pandemic hitting the most deprived. Avoidable mortality is six times greater for women in deprived areas compared with the least deprived women and nearly five times greater for men. Yet we see a spring statement where the Government’s “levelling up” rhetoric has no substance. Just £1 out of the £6 from the Chancellor’s tax hike in the autumn was given back, but only 30p from that £1 went to those on the lowest incomes.
Despite the Government’s hype, their pandemic preparedness was woeful and their pandemic management in too many aspects was reckless, wasteful and even unlawful. We are now aware that, although many people may have fully recovered from the acute phase of covid infection, as the Member for Oxford West and Abingdon has said, for a significant number—ONS data estimates more than 1.5 million or 2.5% of the population, although the covid tracker identifies a larger percentage—there is a longer chronic phase. That chronic phase affects children, about 34,000 at the moment, women, particularly younger women of working age, people on low incomes, frontline workers who are more at risk of exposure, including NHS and care workers, and those with an existing activity-limiting health condition or disability.
As we have heard, symptoms vary but, in summary, they include fatigue, pain, reduced muscle strength, brain fog and so on. In my own case, I have experienced prolonged fatigue bordering on exhaustion, being awake but my brain being somehow disengaged from what I am doing and nasty bouts of nausea. I believe that covid has also exacerbated my already severe arthritis, which is partly the result of many years of running, but has got considerably worse with long covid. The pain is constant and sometimes completely debilitating, making it difficult to stand up.
What is shocking is the response to people who are experiencing long covid from their employers. The hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon mentioned some of these cases. I have also heard of those who have been disciplined by their employers. They were struggling with this condition and wanted to go about their everyday lives. They wanted to be at work and yet they were disciplined for not being able to be back at their desks, back in front of their class, or to see patients; we heard from a GP, as Members may remember. This very much reflects, unfortunately, the attitude of some, but it was particularly disappointing in public sector organisations, especially the NHS.
In December 2020, the National Institute of Health and Care Excellence brought forward its guidelines on managing long covid. At the time, I commended it on the holistic healthcare approach taken when assessing a patient with symptoms beyond four and 12 weeks, with the emphasis on empathy and acknowledging the impact the symptoms may have on the patient’s day-to-day life, including their ability to work. This was a major step forward from previous NICE guidelines on other chronic fatigue syndrome illnesses that are similar to long covid but also affect the nervous and immune systems. The NICE guidelines on long covid were updated earlier this month, and I note that they are to be regularly updated, which we recommended, because there is emerging evidence that we must make sure is incorporated at the earliest opportunity. I hope, because I have not seen evidence of this, that investigations into the range of immune responses to covid as well as immune therapies will also be incorporated.
As I mentioned last year, the British Society for Immunology and several others have suggested that in addition to long-term damage to multiple organs, the pain, muscle weakness, fatigue and even brain fog often associated with long covid may be due to inflammatory issues associated with our immune response rather than covid itself. Covid-19, like other viruses, attacks multiple systems—respiratory, cardiovascular, nervous and gastrointestinal—as it attaches to epithelial cells that are distributed throughout the body. Our bodies’ ability to fight the virus depends on our immune systems reacting appropriately and not overreacting.
We need adequate long-term funding for long covid clinics providing evidence-based therapies—evidence is the key. I pay tribute to my colleagues in Oldham for helping over 300 long covid patients. We need to ensure that long covid is recognised as an occupational disease. There has to be a societal approach.
A couple of weeks ago, I attended with constituents the service at St Paul’s Cathedral that was organised by the cathedral, Sir Lloyd Dorfman and others to remember those who have died from coronavirus. Indeed, earlier today in business questions we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Florence Eshalomi) about the very striking memorial wall in her constituency along the banks of the Thames by St Thomas’s Hospital.
I am really grateful to the Backbench Business Committee and the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran) for enabling us to remind ourselves of all the other victims of covid who are, in a sense, the lucky ones who have survived but who still need our attention. I declare an interest in that a member of my immediate family suffers from long covid. If the House will bear with me, I will not actually identify who it is. For 18 months, that member of my family has not really been able to get out of bed. In terms of work, they were doing well. They are young. Their career was progressing. They were being extremely well rated at work. Almost overnight, that came to a crashing halt.
At first, when you suffer from covid, as I did at the same time as my family member, you hope and believe that although it is going to be awful and unpleasant, if you get through it, life will carry on. Then long covid starts to emerge and you do not get any better. I got better and my family member did not. It involved all the symptoms that my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) described—huge tiredness, brain fog and aching limbs. At the time, the best source of advice that was available, and the best source of support, was my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne). There was nothing really available. People had not come to terms with the condition and with identifying what its causes were. I pay tribute to and thank him for his work and his support to my family.
The employers of my family member were excellent, and still are. They have not been able to continue paying, but as far as they are concerned my family member is still on their books. They value the contribution that my family member has made—again, I am sorry to talk vaguely but I do not want to identify the person—and have said, “When you’re ready to come back, we’re ready to have you.” That is the kind of employment practice that we are looking for.
To echo my hon. Friend the Member for North Tyneside (Mary Glindon), another member of my family has had to give up their job in order to be the carer. What we are looking for is some kind of hope—something to cling on to and to demonstrate progress. There has been progress. I welcome the Government’s investment of £18 million and the growing recognition of the post-viral chronic fatigue syndrome caused by coronavirus. Whenever there is a new light on this, even in scientific papers that I would not normally understand, we devour them to try to find an explanation, a cause, a hope of a cure or a treatment that will get us and my family member through this. Is it caused by scarring on the lungs? Is it caused by microclots? Is it caused by activating postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome, which also bears some kind of relation to what is going on? The truth is that it could be any one of those in any number of individuals, but the absolute fatigue is the same.
I remember my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish advising me, “If you’re feeling good, don’t do too much—don’t exert yourself.” I passed that advice on. It is also about the mental effect. When you are having a good day, you do not want to exert yourself because then you might be knocked out for the next three days, so that forces you to withdraw into yourself and not want to go out. You cannot even walk down to the shops or to the park because you are so terrified that you might then not make it through the next three days. It is about the hope and desire and almost desperation that when you have a good day and it is followed by another good day and then perhaps another, is this the beginning of the end, or even the end of the beginning? For so many, including my family member, it has not been that.
I would ask for the same consideration that has been given to my family member to be given to others—for employers to recognise that the Government have recognised this as an issue and the medical establishment has recognised it as an issue. Employers need to treat their employees who have this illness as also being victims of the pandemic, because nobody has chosen to have it. My message to those, including constituents, who still persist in saying that covid-19 is nothing—that it is just like a cold or the flu—would be something along the lines of, “Get stuffed.” There are 140,000 names on the wall outside St Thomas’s, and there are maybe a couple of hundred thousand others who are still suffering today and are desperate to get over this terrible long-term affliction and have some hope of a better life to come. I am most grateful for this debate, and most grateful, again, to my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish for the support he has given to my family.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran) for securing this important debate, and I must thank the hon. Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson) for bringing to life the reality of many of our constituents and what they experience day to day. No one wants to be in the position of experiencing long covid, the variety of symptoms that it presents with and its timescale. With people having experienced long covid symptoms since the very first wave, it is clearly a difficult and debilitating issue for the country to deal with.
A little over a month ago, I raised the issue of long covid and employment in an Adjournment debate answered by the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman). Although I was grateful for his responses then, I would like to raise some issues again—my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford West and Abingdon has raised some of them—because there is very much more that we could be doing.
When I was here a few weeks ago, I quoted the Office for National Statistics figures, which said that in the four weeks to 2 January, 1.3 million people across the UK were suffering from long covid. That number is now estimated to be 1.5 million, and that is an incredibly fast uptick. Like others, I have recently had covid myself. I was in my bed for four days. Like the hon. Member for City of Chester said, I had a good day and I did too much, and I ended up back in my bed again. Although thankfully for me it was mild and I seem to be very much back on my feet, there is no doubt that regardless of the strain or variant, long covid can still be the result. Even if symptoms are mild for many, the reality is that mild symptoms can still result in long covid. That number shows an incredibly fast uptick, and I stand with colleagues across the House when we say that clearly this condition will not go away, and the Government cannot close their eyes to it.
Indeed, this morning I met RESULTS UK to talk about work we have done on equitable covid access. There is no doubt that unless we do more to help developing countries and other parts of the world in managing this pandemic, we will see future variants, so the risk of long covid does not go away.
Scottish National party colleagues are always talking about Scotland’s doing a lot better compared with elsewhere, but I think the Scottish Government are letting down long covid sufferers in Scotland. As my friend the Member of the Scottish Parliament for Edinburgh West has shown, of the 119,000 long covid sufferers in Scotland, only 1,000 had been referred to the long covid support services announced by Chest, Heart & Stroke Scotland by the end of February. A recent Freedom of Information request showed that of the much-needed £10 million long covid support fund announced by the Scottish Government last September, not a single penny has been allocated or spent. I am an absolute believer in devolving decision making to the place where it can be most effective for our constituents, but the Scottish Government are failing in delivering this support, whether through inefficiencies, errors or something else. My constituents in North East Fife and my SNP colleagues’ constituents deserve better, and I hope to see better in future.
Turning to the impact of long covid on the workforce, I want to focus specifically on those who would otherwise be working, but cannot as a result of their medical condition. I thank those Members who have already highlighted where employers are trying and helping people to work. We have to acknowledge, though, that there are employers out there not doing right by constituents and members of staff, and we must work hard to ensure that they do what is required.
I do not want to repeat my entire speech from a month ago, but I will turn back to a few key points that I do not feel were properly addressed then. Will the Government commit to extending the period that claimants for benefits have to complete their application forms? For someone with a debilitating condition, particularly relapsing remitting ones, which long covid often presents itself as, four weeks is just not enough time to complete a 30-page form, including the collection of evidence. Particularly when experiencing some of those symptoms, they simply cannot concentrate for the length of time required. It takes up more time and resources to apply for a two-week extension. As I raised in the last debate, why do we not just automatically apply that extension to give people more time, rather than taking up DWP time and resources, as well as those of the person, to request that extension? It would be a cheap and straightforward step to give enough time in the first place.
Will the Government commit to consulting with disabled people, including those with long covid or other relapsing remitting conditions, such as ME, about the design of those application forms to ensure that they are properly able to explain the impact of their conditions? I appreciate that the Minister is from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, but we have had a cross-Government approach to covid, and we need a cross-Government approach to long covid, too.
Will the Government accept that the evidence of doctors and specialists who truly understand complex conditions, such as long covid, is relevant to the assessment of how people’s day-to-day lives are affected? Are they afraid that hard evidence will make it more difficult to minimise payments to those in need? Sometimes we are left to wonder just that.
Will the Government publish their decision making matrix for assessors and submit it to independent scrutiny to ensure that it allows for suitable decisions to be made relating to complex conditions such as long covid? That will also have the additional benefit of considerably increasing trust in DWP. We hear about that a lot in this Chamber, and we know it is incredibly low. Finally, will the Government provide proper training to staff in DWP centres—both front and back office—relating to assessments and work coaching? We want to ensure that they are equipped to work with claimants suffering from this new and complex condition. We have heard the variety of symptoms that it creates, but I am pretty sure that increasing people’s anxiety and stress will do nothing to help them.
Those who cannot work because of a health condition are the other side of the workforce coin. Everyone must be supported, and those who are less visible must be given the support they require.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran) for securing this debate, and I reiterate what has been said by many: we understand that so many people are suffering from long covid, and it must be taken seriously by the Government. We understand the impact it is having not only on those individuals and their daily lives, but the workforce. This economic issue will continue to have a serious impact, and it needs to be addressed. I reiterate the main ask that we have and that the all-party parliamentary group on coronavirus has in its very helpful report on long covid, which is for employer guidelines so that people are not at the whim and the mercy of different employers regarding understanding and support for their continuing in or returning to the workforce.
I have come to this debate for two groups of people. One is all those suffering from long covid across the country—an estimated 1.5 million people, or 4.4% of the workforce. The other is those constituents who have been suffering from ME, who have learned many lessons from that and think they are relevant to working with those with long covid. They have been underestimated, not believed and not supported. When they have gone to their GP, they have been told the wrong advice—advice that makes their ME worse—and they have not been understood in schools, whether by young people or teachers, or by their employers, and they do not want anyone with long covid to go through the same. I have been disturbed to hear some of the evidence given to the APPG about workforce practices that are not conducive to helping people come back to the workforce and not the best for those individuals and our economy.
A couple of my constituents have written to me. One said:
“I have now had long covid for two years...We desperately need more investment in potential treatments. It is clear that the illness impacts the blood, autoimmune system, organs, brain and central nervous system. None of these mechanisms are being treated by the NHS so far. Treatments are being trialled in other countries.”
There are questions being asked about the trials being conducted in other countries and what more could be done here.
Another constituent said:
“I contracted covid-19 at the very end of September. Like many people, I suffered mild symptoms…2 weeks on from my initial infection I was suddenly hit with a wave of long covid symptoms and was truly horrified at what was happening to my brain and body. I felt drained and broken, and…I felt as though a foreign body was inside my head—I could no longer hold even a conversation, yet alone work. For the last 7 months I have been unable to function in any sort of capacity.”
Finally, my cousin has had long covid for a long time. He sent me a list of his symptoms: fatigue, concentration impairment, memory problems, cognitive loss, internal pain, chills and sweats, sleeplessness, sore throat, dizziness, shaking, anxiety, faintness and muscle aches. All these symptoms and impacts of long covid need to be understood by employers, by teachers and education settings, and by general practitioners and all medical workers, as recommended by the report of the APPG on coronavirus.
I underline those recommendations and ask specifically for the urgent production of clear employer guidelines, otherwise there will continue to be an employer lottery in the treatment of people with long covid as they return to work. I ask for guidance to education settings, because many students with ME found it difficult to get understanding in order to continue with their education. We cannot have the same happen for those with long covid. And I ask for clear guidance to medical practitioners on children and adults with long covid so that everyone gets the proper care, support and understanding they need so that they have hope and do not add being misunderstood to their long list of symptoms, only increasing their anxiety.
I welcome this debate, and I hope to hear some good news from the Minister about the key recommendations of this report being taken up to create a good situation for everyone with long covid.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate, which brings back many memories, as the hon. Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson) said. There will be no one in the Chamber today who is not reflecting on those who have been lost over the past two years. As of last week, we have lost 3,200 people in Northern Ireland and 157,000 across the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. It is fair to say that every family and every person has been touched by the loss of someone to covid. We cannot help but think of those numbers in this debate.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran) on setting the scene and on her hard work with others on the APPG to bring this matter to a head and to highlight and better understand these issues.
I was first elected as a councillor in 1985, and I sat in the Northern Ireland Assembly for 12 consecutive years. When I first became a Member of the Legislative Assembly in 1998, one of the biggest issues in my office was benefits, and it continues to be the biggest issue—benefits, housing and planning, in that order.
The hon. Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson) talked about ME, and others will recognise this story. When I was an MLA, people with ME would come to me when they had to fill in benefits forms. They said, “My doctor says there is nothing wrong with me.” And I said, “Are there any other doctors in the practice you could speak to?” I am not disrespecting doctors, as they are excellent people, but there was no understanding of ME then. We had to fight incredible battles to get the evidence to prove these people had ME. They said they had chronic fatigue, and they did. It was called ME, and it was a disease. That supports what the hon. Lady, the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon and others have said.
I am not saying anyone here is special, but I commend the hon. Member for City of Chester for his very personal story, which the hon. Member for North East Fife (Wendy Chamberlain) also mentioned. His personal story resonates, and he knows that I missed him. I said to him, “We missed you. Where have you been?” He did not tell me everything he had been through, but he told me some of it—he told it all today. Others in the House have been affected, too, so we thank him for his story.
Although I have been double-jabbed and boosted, I was informed by a test after getting home from the House on an early Saturday morning that I had covid. I could not understand it, because I had no symptoms. A lady from the NHS back home phoned me on the Saturday morning and said, “Mr Shannon, how do you feel?” And I said, “Would you be shocked to know that I feel great?” She said, “Well, do you have any symptoms?” And I said, “I have no symptoms. As a matter of fact, I do not think I have felt this well in the past two weeks.” The lady could not understand it, and she told me that I was asymptomatic. I am not sure what that means—
It means you are special.
My wife says I am special. I thank the hon. Lady for being most complimentary.
I did not have any symptoms, but I isolated as instructed, because I follow the rules—that is the way to do it. Although I was fortunate and blessed to be asymptomatic and not ill with covid, that is not the case for the many people who did not come through covid unscathed. We have all mentioned that 1.5 million people, 2.4% of the population of this great nation of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, have self-reported ongoing covid symptoms that have persisted for more than four weeks, as of 31 January 2022. Forty-five per cent of them, 685,000 people, first had or suspect they first had covid-19 at least one year previously.
I think of the wall outside St Thomas’s Hospital, where some ladies from Manchester, Liverpool and elsewhere met us two or three months ago. I was walking to the hotel one night, many months ago, and passed the wall. It is a wonderful memorial to those who have passed on, and it is good that those ladies and others organised the wall to give people an outlet for their feelings.
Two years after the first lockdown, the long-term effects of covid are becoming clear. We need to put protection in place for employees with this long-term illness that doctors cannot pinpoint. These people struggle daily to live with it, but they are not protected by the Disability Discrimination Act 1995.
This Government should urgently produce guidelines for employers in both the private sector and the public sector on managing the impact of long covid among their workforce. We should also launch a compensation scheme, as the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon mentioned, for all frontline key workers living with long covid. I agree with the APPG that the scheme should mirror the armed forces compensation scheme, which we discussed on Monday night, recognising the relapsing nature of long covid and going beyond the existing pay scheme.
Long covid is a debilitating illness. There is a gentlemen I have known ever since he came to Ards. He is the pastor of a church in my constituency, and he almost lost his life to covid. He is 6 feet 4 inches, and this big, strapping man was brought to his knees. He walked up the hill to Stormont in the “Voice for the Voiceless” protest, and I thought he would have to lie down. Long covid has hit him incredibly hard. He has one day of good and then three days of bad. He has headaches, stomach upsets, blood clots, reduced lung function and chronic fatigue. His church is happy to allow him to rest as he needs. Had he worked for another employer—I will not mention them—he would not have that protection. We must improve the current care pathways for long covid, with a view to ensuring the healthcare system is capable of meeting current and future demand.
In a Westminster Hall debate, I mentioned a constituent who had brain fog. The shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne), has lived that. It is important to say that one of our friends and colleagues in this House has lived with long covid and has found it incredibly difficult, as have others, to deal with. You are not far from our thoughts—
Sorry, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am probably getting carried away in the emotion of the occasion.
Has the Minister’s Department been able to collect the data on those with long covid? I want to see flexibility for those who are in full-time employment and employment guidelines, to which the hon. Member for Putney referred. I think all hon. Members present want to see them.
Perhaps the Minister can confirm whether the lessons have been learned from covid-19. As the hon. Member for North East Fife said, other diseases will come along and we must be prepared. What we learn from this disease will make us smarter for the next one. I put on record, because it is important when we are talking about these things, how well the Government reacted with the compensation schemes for businesses and the covid-19 vaccine. Those are the positives that gave us heart when we were down in the dumps.
Roughly 4% of the UK’s workforce has had long covid and 82 million work days were lost due to long covid absence in NHS England between March 2020 and September 2021. The real figure may be higher as it was not classified as a reason for absence at the start of the pandemic. It is clear that the effect on business is real, which is why we are having this debate, and that there must be structures in place to deal with it.
Again, I thank the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon and all hon. Members for their contributions. I look forward to the contributions from the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows) and the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish. The Minister is a friend to us all and I look forward to hearing what he says.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate. I thank the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran) and the hon. Members who have already spoken in the debate.
The hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) talked about staff being disciplined because they have long covid. The hon. Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson) gave a personal testimony and explained much more about how it affects families in their entirety. The hon. Member for North East Fife (Wendy Chamberlain) talked about application forms, which are the bane of all our existence. If someone is not well, they become far more difficult. The hon. Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson) raised the idea of employer guidelines. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) gave his unique take on it, mentioned his wife and family, and brought a personal touch to the debate.
The scale of long covid cannot be underestimated, as we have heard, and has a significant impact on the UK workforce, especially key workers. The ONS’s latest monthly estimates show that over the four-week period ending 31 January, an estimated 1.5 million people across the UK—2.4% of the population—self-reported experiencing long covid. That included 119,000 folk in Scotland.
That data shows that long covid symptoms that persist for longer than four weeks appear to have a higher prevalence in adults between the ages of 35 and 49. A survey last month by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, which has already been referred to, found that a quarter of UK employers cited long covid as one of the main causes of long-term sickness absence among staff. These are things that we are having to deal with. Key workers appear to be more at risk of long covid, which must be looked at.
We are still learning about the true impact of long covid on an individual’s physical and mental health. We know what the most common symptoms are, but we still do not understand the long-term issues. The CIPD report points out that, as it is a new condition, people sometimes do not know that they have it and it takes a long time for them to be given a diagnosis. There is a double burden of uncertainty regarding how best people with long covid can navigate their work, which affects sickness absence and their return to work.
Briefly, on that point, the fact that first wavers with long covid did not necessarily have a covid test is a key issue. The Department for Work and Pensions and the Government should look at that. When GPs are looking at a list of symptoms that can only be long covid, there should be an acceptance that that is what people are suffering from.
I thank the hon. Lady for the intervention. Hon. Members have already spoken about ME, which is non-specific and can sometimes be difficult to diagnose. The main issue that I would raise in that regard is that people should be believed.
Support is already being delivered across Scotland for those suffering from long covid and the Scottish Government are committed to doing more. They recognise and acknowledge the impact that long covid can have on the health and wellbeing of those affected and have encouraged all employers to apply fair work principles and a flexible approach to dealing with the impacts of covid-19 to protect the health and wellbeing of the workforce.
In the event that NHS Scotland staff are absent due to covid, current temporary measures ensure that they are paid as if they are at work and that they are not subject to corresponding sickness absence triggers. The Scottish Government continue to support NHS colleagues with the provision of those temporary sickness absence measures in the event that they contract covid-19.
Again, the Scottish Government have a long covid strategic network that helps to bring together clinical experts, NHS boards and lived experience. For any disease or issue, lived experience can give those who are trying to help a real experience of what needs to be done. Following analysis and planning by the strategic network to identify where additional resource is needed, the first tranche of funding to NHS boards will be given early in the next financial year, which starts tomorrow. The fund will provide additional resource to support NHS boards to develop and deliver the best models of care appropriate for their populations.
This debate is about the effect on the workforce. It is important that the workforce know what may be wrong with them and that employers know what long covid is about. The Scottish Government carried out a marketing campaign in October and November last year to raise awareness of long covid and to signpost people to the appropriate support. The campaign supported the production of posters for display in community pharmacies and GP surgeries across Scotland in different languages, social media posts and a campaign toolkit that was sent to 250 direct partner contacts, with an additional distribution of approximately 3,000-plus places.
I mention the APPG and its good work. It recommended that the UK Government commit £100 million per annum to funding research into diagnostic and treatment pathways for long covid patients. The Scottish chief scientist office is funding patient-led and Scottish-led projects with a total commitment to funding. Again, that work is being done and disseminated widely.
I cannot finish without talking about statutory sick pay and its effect on people with long covid. It has a disproportionate impact on groups that are already disadvantaged in terms of work and health. To limit further health and inequality, the UK Government must ensure a liveable sick pay for all. The SNP is clear that we must have a system fit for the 21st century and we need to look at the people who are earning the least, because someone cannot even get statutory sick pay if they are earning less than £120 a week, which is the case for many.
The fact that the Government have moved away from having statutory sick pay from the first day of sickness has a huge impact on people. The Prime Minister claimed we should be more like the Germans and not go to work when we are sick, which is quite ironic considering that Germany has one of the best sick pay systems in Europe, with laws requiring employers to pay staff 100% of wages for the first six weeks of sickness. By contrast, the UK has one of the lowest. I remember being in this Chamber and listening to a Conservative Member saying that £96.35 a day in statutory sick pay was quite a good benefit. When she was told that it was £96.35 a week, she was quite shocked, and I was quite shocked that she did not know that. It is absolutely appalling. We are one of the richest countries in the world, and people cannot afford to stay off sick. It is just disgraceful, and the fact that people now have to qualify and wait—is it two weeks?—before they can even access it is just absolutely ridiculous.
The Government did not bring in an employment Bill in the last Queen’s Speech, but they should in the next. Flexible working would also help people with long covid, as it would help them on the days when they are better able to work and perhaps do not need to trail into work. Again, there was a BEIS consultation, which ended over three months ago. Can we find out what has happened to that?
In conclusion, while employment law remains reserved to Westminster, the SNP Scottish Government are using their fair work policy to promote fairer working practices across the labour market in Scotland. I really urge the Minister to look at what is happening with low statutory sick pay, and to look at helping such people—and not just people with long covid, but as they are the subject of this debate, that would really be a huge improvement in the lives of those unfortunate enough to have this terrible condition.
I call the shadow Minister.
I sincerely thank the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran) for all the work she has done on this issue, and for the way she opened this debate. I also thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting it and the Members who have taken part. I thank in particular my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams), and I sincerely thank my hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson) for his kind words. It is nice to know that my experiences have helped somebody else with theirs, and I wish his family member well for the future. I also thank the hon. Member for North East Fife (Wendy Chamberlain), and my hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson), who is absolutely right to draw parallels with ME both in some of the symptoms and in how that community has been treated over a number of years. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon)—because he is my friend—for his kind words, too.
As colleagues will know, not least because it has been mentioned in this debate, long covid is an issue very close to my heart. Back in March 2020, I first caught covid. That was 107 weeks and four days ago, and I am still struggling with some of the symptoms of long covid all these weeks and days later. Back then, I felt rough with covid, but to my relief I avoided a lot of the more serious symptoms we were seeing on the news and hearing from friends and colleagues at that time. It was not great, but the fact that I was not hospitalised was a blessing.
However, when my self-isolation period ended and in theory I should have been fine to return to work, I found that I could not. I found that I was perpetually exhausted, and I could not catch my breath. I would be talking to my wife, and suddenly the words would vanish. I would try to pick them out, but I could not find the right ones. I would forget things and lose track of why I had come into a room. I would sweat as though I had run the London marathon just doing routine day-to-day things such as making a cup of tea. I felt completely terrified. My symptoms were not going anywhere, but instead evolving into something different and seemingly something permanent.
In May 2020, Elisa Perego coined the term “long covid” to describe these persistent and wide-ranging symptoms, and I felt like a bright light had been shone on what I had been going through. We now know that over 1.5 million people suffer with long covid in the United Kingdom, and that the majority of these—989,000—say it affects their daily activities. It certainly affected mine. I am very fortunate to have a brilliant team across Westminster and in my constituency of Denton and Reddish, and they stepped up on my worst days, when getting out of bed felt like running a marathon. They made sure that my constituents were still well represented, and that I was given sufficient time to rest when needed. Listening to my body was a hard lesson, too.
However, millions of people in this country are not as fortunate as I was. We have some of the worst sick pay provision in the OECD, and we are in an age of precarious work. In that context, long covid becomes an economic as well as a health emergency. The fact of the matter is that there has been an acute failure on the part of Government to take long covid as seriously as perhaps they should, because it is not just a health issue, but an employment and a DWP issue. The Government could and, I believe, should be doing more to encourage workplaces to better support those suffering from long covid and to enable employers to understand precisely what long covid means for their workforce.
For December 2021 to January 2022, the most recent period we have access to, it has been shown that, of the 1.5 million people currently suffering from long covid, only 2,869 had attempted to access the post-covid assessment service. Of that tiny number, 34% had been waiting for longer than 15 weeks. Something is going very wrong. Almost 1 million people are reporting long covid symptoms that are adversely affecting their day-to-day lives, yet just a fraction are attempting to access care and only a fraction of those are actually getting it. I would be grateful if, in his response, the Minister set out what conversations he has had with colleagues in the Department of Health and Social Care about these figures, and what action the Government will be taking to ensure that those who have long covid can actually access the care they desperately need.
This is actually quite crucial because, with the right rehabilitation package, work can become viable again for a proportion of those people. I want to share with the Minister some data I have received from Nuffield Health. Operating a free 12-week programme, it has so far helped over 1,900 people from across the UK to recover from the prolonged effects of covid-19, including breathlessness, anxiety and fatigue, and I am one of the 1,900 who have taken part in that free programme. Its results to date show that for 64% of people the programme improved mental wellbeing, for 39% it improved their functional capacity and for 39% it improved their breathlessness, while 35% saw an improvement in fitness and 30%—not an insubstantial number—were absent from work but felt they could return. This is not a silver bullet for all, because those are still minority figures, but I think that 30% being able to return to work with the right rehabilitation programme is quite encouraging.
As has been pointed out on numerous occasions, 4% of the UK workforce currently have long covid. That is an extraordinarily high number of people, and it will no doubt be having an impact both on workplace productivity and on wider employment outcomes. The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development has found that a quarter of UK employers cited long covid as one of the main causes of long-term sickness among their staff, yet those living with long covid have had very little in the way of workplace protection.
In my capacity as shadow Minister for public health, I have been inundated with stories of employees facing an uphill battle to have reasonable adjustments implemented in their workplaces. I have heard from doctors unable to return to work and NHS staff who have been sacked or had contracts terminated because of long covid symptoms. They are the people who carried us through the pandemic—we stood on our doorsteps for them and applauded them. We can do much better than that.
I turn to the help that I had in returning to work. I pay tribute to Mr Speaker and the staff in the Speaker’s Office, because I am lucky enough to work in an environment where reasonable adjustments were made. When I first returned to the House in person after the summer recess, I found that I could not bob in the Chamber without becoming incredibly fatigued, and that would trigger my brain fog. After almost collapsing during a ministerial statement on Afghanistan—I had been bobbing for almost an hour—I arranged for a meeting with Mr Speaker on the basis that I could not do my job and, if I could not do a simple task like bobbing up and down, I might as well pack up and leave. Mr Speaker and his brilliant staff advised me that instead of rising on each occasion, I could simply hold up my Order Paper. That simple solution made a huge difference to my health and wellbeing. I sincerely thank Mr Speaker, and indeed you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and the staff in the Speaker’s Office for being so understanding.
However, reasonable adjustments should not just be made for Members of Parliament. The Government need to do much more to empower employees to approach their bosses and have these conversations. The problem is that, with practically zero workplace protections in place for long covid, they become incredibly difficult to have.
The Opposition recognise the threat that long covid poses both to the health of this nation and to the British workforce. That is why we would end the postcode lottery of long covid care provision, fix the shameful state of sick pay and engage with employers to support those living with long covid. Covid has not gone anywhere, and it is profoundly irresponsible to stick fingers in ears and pretend that 1.5 million people are not still struggling. Free lateral flow testing will end tomorrow and, as a result, covid cases will rise. It will make it much harder to track the level of covid in the UK and, by extension, the number of people who may go on to develop and live with long covid.
I am glad that the hon. Member has brought up that point. He will have heard about the difficulties that people have in accessing benefits and proving that they have long covid. People get long covid from covid, but, if they cannot get a test, how do they know if they have had covid? That makes it so much more difficult for people to prove long covid down the line and access the benefits that they deserve.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right. That is a real concern of mine, not least because I have experienced it. I was in the first wave of covid, having caught it in the weeks when the Government said, “If you develop symptoms, you no longer need to test; just go into self-isolation.” I knew that I had covid, and I know that that led to long covid, but to this day I cannot prove it because there was no routine testing available to show it. That is a real issue.
I am incredibly worried that getting rid of free testing is a short-term decision that will have major financial and public health implications for the foreseeable future. The Government cannot turn a blind eye to a problem that is having a devastating impact on the people of this country. One of the defining lessons of the pandemic is that we do not have the luxury of dithering and delay when it comes to public health. We urgently need a cross-departmental long covid strategy. I would support that, work on it and gladly give my experience and advice to Ministers to help develop it. We need a long covid strategy, we need proper sick pay, and we need the Government to understand that they have an important role in working with business and industry to ensure that reasonable adjustments and support in the workplace become a thing for all, not just for me.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran) on opening the debate so incredibly well, and I congratulate her, the hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) and my hon. Friend the Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter)—unfortunately he could not be here—on securing this important debate on the impact of long covid in the workplace. I thank the Backbench Business Committee and all those who have taken part in the debate for their thoughtful and insightful comments.
We heard about the ONS estimate that, in the four-week period ending 31 January 2022, 1.5 million people in the UK reported experiencing ongoing symptoms following covid. Of them, nearly 300,000 reported that their ability to undertake day-to-day activities had been significantly limited. It is therefore clear, as we have heard, that long covid presents a growing challenge for the workplace and more widely. The emergence of a completely new condition such as long covid is a real rarity and, much like our experience of the covid-19 pandemic itself, we must be and are constantly developing our understanding.
We have put support in place for those suffering from the condition. NHS England has invested £224 million to date to provide care for people with long covid. It has established 90 long covid assessment services across England, which are assessing and diagnosing people experiencing long-term health effects as a result of covid-19 infection, whether they have had a positive test or are likely to have long covid based on their clinical symptoms, regardless of whether they were admitted to hospital during their covid-19 illness. The services offer physical, cognitive and psychological assessment and, where appropriate, refer patients to existing services for treatment and rehabilitation. The hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon talked about the $1 billion in the States. Not all of that has been allocated yet, while the UK is already ploughing ahead, and we are quite far ahead of other countries, including the States, in our research in the area. Of course, there is always more that we can do.
It is clearly essential to get the right healthcare and treatment in place for individuals, for employers and for the wider economy. However, the theme of the debate is the impact of long covid in the workplace. People can suffer from many long-term health and other conditions that may affect their work. We have heard about ME, and we could talk about fibromyalgia, Guillain-Barré, Miller Fisher all those things. Indeed, there are other conditions that are not necessarily post-viral.
Earlier this month, I gave evidence to the Women and Equalities Committee on the impact of the menopause in the workplace, and in February I responded for the Government to a Westminster Hall debate on supporting people with endometriosis in the workplace. Those are different conditions, but, none the less, they are long lasting and we need to ensure that we can get people the right treatments and adjustments. Indeed, in the case of the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne), a simple, natural adjustment made his working life so much easier, and for so many of these other conditions there are examples of small things that employers can do to keep people in the workplace. They do not have to be complicated, and they certainly do not have to be expensive.
We believe that employers should play a significant role in supporting people with long-term health conditions to access and remain in work. That can certainly benefit individuals as well as bringing real bottom-line benefits to employers through, for example, avoiding recruitment costs and not unnecessarily losing experienced and valued members of staff.
However, it is not sustainable for every condition to get different or special treatment. For employers, that could lead to confusion and complexity; likewise for employees. That is why the Government’s starting position is that, specifically in the workplace and in the overall framework for providing health support to employees, long covid should be treated the same as any other long-term health condition. Let me set out that framework, which, as hon. Members would expect, is a cross-departmental effort.
The Government’s response to the “Health is everyone’s business” consultation, led by the Department for Work and Pensions, was published in July 2021. It sets out some of the measures that we will take to protect and maintain the progress made to reduce ill health-related job loss and see 1 million more disabled people in work from 2017 through to 2027.
I am listening keenly to the Minister, but the issue is that this is an infectious disease that is contracted partly as a result of exposure, and there is clear evidence that exposure happens in the workplace. It is therefore not the same as existing progressive or fluctuating illnesses; it is very much an infectious disease contracted in the workplace. That is the basis for our recommendations.
I understand the hon. Member’s point. I am trying to set out the framework for managing long-term illness, but clearly, we still have support in the workplace for those with infectious diseases. I cited ME, fibromyalgia, Guillain-Barré syndrome and Miller Fisher syndrome, which are all post-viral infections—an infection beforehand typically leads to those other long-lasting conditions. That is why I am compartmentalising the framework, but none the less, I take the hon. Member’s point about the infections happening in the first place.
“Health is everyone’s business” did not consult on long covid, or any other specific health condition for that matter; it looked at system-level measures to support employers and employees to manage any health condition or disability in the workplace. The measures that we are taking forward include providing greater clarity on employer and employee rights and responsibilities by developing a national digital information and advice service; working with the Health and Safety Executive to develop a set of clear and simple principles that employers would be expected to apply to support disabled people and those with long-term health conditions in the work environment; and increasing access to occupational health services, particularly for small and medium-sized enterprises, which, as we know, are currently underserved.
As I said, although those measures are not long covid-specific, they are key steps in our effort to change the workplace culture around health and sickness management. That will benefit those suffering from long covid in the same way as those suffering from other longer-term health issues or disability.
As the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows) said, we are also responsible for flexible working. We know that that policy can be incredibly helpful to those suffering from many long-term health conditions, including long covid, as they seek to manage the symptoms, some of which we have heard about today, such as extreme tiredness, insomnia, depression and anxiety. Although flexible working does not provide the whole answer, it can be an important tool for employers and employees as they have discussions about how better to balance the demands of work and life, particularly for those managing long-term health conditions.
The consultation on flexible working introduced plans for a future call for evidence on ad hoc flexible working; we want to explore how non-contractual flexibility works in practice. I discussed that with the Flexible Working Taskforce in February. We will ensure that the role of ad hoc flexible working to support those with long covid and other health conditions—such as the menopause and endometriosis, which I have mentioned—is part of its considerations.
Is the Minister looking at cutting the time before someone can apply for flexible working? At the moment, they have to have been in work for quite a long while before they can do so.
Our manifesto committed to consult on this issue. Within that consultation, we looked at a day one right to request flexible working. That is key, because it will attract people to and keep them in a good workplace. We might as well start as we are set to carry on.
Another significant part of the cross-departmental framework is the Government Equalities Office, which is responsible for the Equality Act 2010. That is an important part of the matrix, because it may protect those with long-term health conditions from discrimination. That Act ensures that any person with a condition that meets the definition of a disability is protected, so it should not be stigmatised. The Act describes disability as
“a physical or mental impairment”
“has a substantial and long-term adverse effect”
on a person’s
“ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities”.
We heard about that not least from the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish and during the incredibly passionate speech of the hon. Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson), who cited the example of his family member. By the way, I know how difficult it is for an hon. Member to describe a family member who is suffering from something that we are debating, and I thank him for his personalised experience, which has informed the House and positively contributed so much to the debate.
As I said, the disability should not be stigmatised, though some may do so. This is simply about the impairment, as we have heard loud and clear. “Long-term” is defined having lasted, or being likely to last for, at least 12 months. “Substantial” is defined as more than minor or trivial, as we have heard strongly in Members’ examples today.
The Act makes it clear that it is not necessary for the cause of the impairment to be established, nor does the impairment have to be the result of an illness. A disability can therefore arise from a wide range of impairments. That means that any person who falls within that definition will already be protected as having a disability. That can therefore encompass some of the emerging effects of long covid, but every case will be different and should be considered on its merits.
As well as paying tribute to the hon. Member for City of Chester, I thank the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon and ask her to pass on our regards to Andrew, Nell and Rebecca. We also heard about Julie Wells and her daughter and the caring responsibilities involved. The examples that we have had really add colour and inform the debate.
The hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw talked about statutory sick pay. We have discussed the fact that we need to look at statutory sick pay, but this is not the time to do so, particularly while we are in the middle of the pandemic. However, we also need to look at statutory sick pay in the round. She mentioned people earning under £120 a week, but many in that situation are already in receipt of other benefits. That is what I mean about not just concentrating on one issue; we need to look at the whole person and their whole personal finance.
In summary, we are supporting people with long-term health conditions, including long covid, by working hard on the general approach to work and health, through our response to the “Health is everyone’s business consultation”, and taking steps to make some of our employment rights work a little harder to support those balancing work with other issues and challenges. All that is underpinned by the protections against discrimination provided by the Equality Act. We must also showcase the good employers, as was mentioned by the hon. Member for City of Chester.
If I understand this correctly, the consultation is happening and guidance will be provided more comprehensively for all longer-term illnesses. The issue particularly with long covid is that it is so new that many employers do not have a clue what it is. Will he consider suggesting a public health information campaign particularly targeted at businesses so that they know that it exists and where they can go for such guidance?
I often talk about ACAS guidance, which, obviously, is available in this area. The hon. Lady mentioned what she saw as shortfalls in that guidance. We will always look at that to make sure that guidance is up to date, especially with an evolving condition such as long covid. I keep citing the example of ME, which, like fibromyalgia, is one of those diseases that is very poorly understood by so many people in the workplace and even, frankly, by health professionals. It will evolve and I am sure that we will able to push that information out to employers.
I hope that hon. Members would agree that there is a wide-ranging set of actions to address long-term health issues in the workplace, whatever those health conditions are. We want to encourage a better culture around work and health, including for those suffering from long covid. I firmly believe that it is an important principle to have a single, consistent and clear approach to managing health in the workplace. It is unsustainable to have a number of different approaches for different conditions. I close by thanking everyone once again for this helpful and informative debate.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the impact of long covid on the UK workforce.