A sharp rise in the number of Covid infections thanks to the highly transmissible Kraken variant has heightened fears that more people will see their lives and finances ruined by long Covid.
New figures from the Office for National Statistics show there are now more than two million people in the UK reporting symptoms of long Covid including fatigue, difficulty concentrating, shortness of breath and muscle ache.
Almost a third of those say they’ve been struggling with symptoms for more than two years, with many forced to take months off work.
Some employers are more sympathetic than others and, if companies only provide the statutory minimum financial support, the financial strain can become unsustainable.
Dr Julie Denning from Working To Wellbeing, a health service which supports people with long-term illness back into work, says it is increasingly seeing employees under significant financial pressure as a result of long Covid.
“We have often seen people pushing themselves back into work before they have fully recovered or are able to manage their symptoms just in order to get paid,” she says.
“Often people in this situation expend all their energy on work to the detriment of the other areas of their life and spend a lot of their time utterly exhausted. That then results in cycles of being on and off work.”
The last thing you want to worry about when you’re ill is money, yet the drop in income for those off work long-term can be catastrophic.
“Having a long-term condition can significantly impact on someone’s ability to work and therefore on their financial situation,” says Dr Denning.
What are my rights when it comes to long-term absence?
Few employers offer indefinite sick pay, with most restricting the number of days an employee can take off each year before they default to statutory sick pay.
Under the scheme, companies are obliged to pay a minimum of £99.35 a week to employees unable to work due to illness for a maximum of 28 weeks.
Employers are also required to make “reasonable adjustments” to accommodate employees with long-term illness, such as reducing hours for an agreed period.
However, where long Covid results in longer absences companies can stop paying employees altogether and in some cases it is legal for an employer to sack a member of staff taking prolonged periods off work.
What should I do if my income falls?
Given the lack of consistent financial support from employers under the current law, there is little specific help for those struggling with long Covid and money problems.
There are several things you can do if you’re having difficulties.
First and foremost don’t try to deal with it all on your own.
There are several services offering free and confidential support for anyone worried about money or in debt, including Citizens Advice, StepChange, National Debtline, Debt Advice Foundation and PayPlan.
Don’t be tempted by adverts offering debt plans that cost you a fee – you don’t need to spend money to get help.
Debt advisers from any of the free services will be able to suggest the best way for you to get back in control of your finances.
What help is available?
If your employer has stopped paying you statuary sick pay you might be able to claim employment and support allowance (ESA), personal independence payment (PIP), universal credit and other benefits.
Under amended rules you can apply for ESA up to three months before your sick pay ends, which Citizens Advice recommends as the process can take a while.
The Government has also brought in a post-Covid scheme called Breathing Space which gives you temporary protection from the creditors you owe money to if you’re struggling with debts.
Debt charity StepChange also offers a short-term Covid Payment Plan for people who just need a bit more time and a bit more forbearance to get back to resuming full payments on debts built up during the pandemic.
If things are more stretched you may be able to get extra help in the form of grants.
The Household Support Fund offers financial help with everyday expenses including energy bills, broadband, phone bills, clothing and essential transport costs. If you live in England contact your local council to see if you are eligible.
There are similar schemes in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – the Scottish Welfare Fund, Welsh Discretionary Assistance Fund and the Northern Irish Social Fund. Again get in touch with your council to see if you qualify.
Local welfare assistance may also be an option. This offers emergency funds to people considered vulnerable to pay for essentials, for example if your boiler breaks or you need help to pay bills.
Will long Covid support improve?
Rachel Suff, senior wellbeing and employee relations adviser for the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, says it is “very concerned” about the prevalence of long Covid among working-age adults.
“Long Covid’s impact on people’s health, sickness absence and presenteeism levels as well as early exit from the labour market is concerning,” she says.
“There’s a serious gap in understanding and support for employees affected by long Covid.”
In July last year Terrance Burke, a caretaker living in Scotland, took his employer to a tribunal and won after arguing long Covid was a disability and he had been unfairly dismissed.
The ruling doesn’t mean other employers have to follow suit, however. The TUC has called on government a number of times to ensure everyone with long Covid is recognised as disabled under the Equality Act.
Frances O’Grady, general secretary of the TUC, has argued this would give them the support they need to continue to do their jobs and formal protection under employment law.
“Economic inactivity is rising almost 10 times as fast for people with long Covid than for those without the condition. And older workers are being hit the hardest,” she says.
“Long Covid must also be recognised as an occupational disease. That would entitle employees to protection and compensation if they contracted the virus while working.
“It’s a scandal that more than two-and-a-half years after the first lockdown, the workers who kept our country going through the pandemic have still been offered no support.”
The Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service has issued guidance stating: “Employers should focus on the reasonable adjustments they can make rather than trying to work out if an employee’s condition is a disability”.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission also issued guidance for employers on their legal obligations to support employees suffering with long Covid including those with disabilities triggered by the condition.