Government urged to classify Covid as an occupational disease

Ministers should urgently classify Covid-19 as an occupational disease to prompt employers to reduce the risk of exposure and help workers access key benefits, the TUC has said.

The UK is out of step with other major countries that have recognised Covid as a disease that people can get in the course of their work, especially in certain sectors, it says.

The umbrella body for British trade unions is urging the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to use its powers to “prescribe” Covid. If the DWP agrees, Covid would be treated the same as, for example, a disease related to workplace exposure such as asbestos-related cancer, which is a known risk for people who have worked in construction or firefighting.

Frances O’Grady, the TUC’s general secretary, accused ministers of “shocking negligence” for not having already prescribed Covid, given the considerable evidence of people getting it at work.

“If you become sick due to your work, with life-changing consequences, you should get proper support. But ministers have still not added Covid to the list of occupational diseases,” she said. “Two years into this pandemic that is shocking negligence. And it leaves workers unfairly exposed.”

In a report, the TUC states: “At least 20,000 people die prematurely every year because of occupational disease as a result of occupational disease. There are more than 70 prescribed ‘occupational’ diseases known to be a risk from certain jobs. These diseases arise as a result of employment requiring close contact with a hazardous substance or circumstance.”

Someone whose diagnosis has been linked to their job is able to claim financial support.

Research by the International Labour Organization has shown that many other nations, including Australia, Canada and China, already recognise Covid as an occupational disease, subject to evidence of infection through a job role. In France it is automatically treated as such for healthcare workers, although the latter must have been affected by a severe form of coronavirus.

At least 20 of the 50 states in the US presume that many first responders and key workers who get Covid – including paramedics and firefighters – have done so while at work.

In Britain, ministers can designate an illness as an occupational disease subject to guidance from the Industrial Injuries Advisory Council, an independent body, which assesses the evidence. However, in March last year it published a review which showed that some people were at double the risk of catching Covid if they worked in areas such as nursing, social care, bus or taxi driving, food processing, retail or security work.

Employers are obliged to report cases of any prescribed disease to the Health and Safety Executive and their local council. Employees can then access benefits and compensation through the industrial injuries scheme to help them cope with their illness and disability.

The British Medical Association and the all-party parliamentary group (APPG) on coronavirus, which is made up of MPs and peers, already supports designation of Covid as a work-related hazard. Layla Moran, the Liberal Democrat MP who chairs the APPG, urged rapid progress. “Ministers cannot continue to bury their heads in the sand,” she said.

A government spokesperson stressed the benefits already available to people whose ability to work is hampered by having Covid or long Covid.

“For anyone with a disability or long-term health condition, including long Covid, there is a strong financial safety net, including statutory sick pay, Esa and universal credit,” they said.

“Pip is also available for those who have daily living and/or mobility needs for three months, and are expected to have these for at least another nine months. Pip assessments are carried out by trained healthcare professionals, who carefully consider how an individual’s disability or long-term health condition impacts their day-to-day life.”

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