Long Covid and the burden on SMEs
Written by Aamira Khan and Froeks Kamminga
What is Long Covid?
Long Covid or Post Covid Syndrome is described as ’signs and symptoms that develop during or after an infection consistent with COVID-19, continue for more than 4 weeks, and are not explained by an alternative diagnosis.
The nature of symptoms, severity and onset of Long Covid varies from person to person, with more than half of Long Covid sufferers reporting fatigue and almost one third reporting shortness of breath. The timeline of Long Covid also varies from person to person with a staggering 1.4 million people who first had confirmed or suspected COVID-19 more than 12 weeks ago, 761,000 more than a year ago, and 380,000 over two years ago. Risk factors are still being researched but women, older people and those with underlying or existing conditions such as asthma or mental ill-health are thought to be at greater risk. This can in turn exacerbate existing health inequalities in the workplace.
How many people have been affected?
In July 2022, the Office For National Statistics estimated that 1.8 million people in the UK -2.8% of the population- were experiencing self-reported Long Covid. Cumulatively, 7% of people of working age in the UK have experienced or still have Long Covid since the start of the pandemic.
Impact on the economy and the labour market?
Research by the Institute for Fiscal Studies has examined the impact of Long Covid on labour market outcomes and has estimated that one in ten people who develop long COVID stop working, with increased sick leave resulting in a loss of earnings of £1.5 billion per year due to an estimated 4.4 million lost working hours per week, and 110,000 workers off sick.
What about SMEs?
With SMEs contributing to over 98% of all business within the Square Mile, and more than half the total turnover of businesses in the UK, it is important to assess the effects on SMEs, and how they can be supported.
Surveys were done in 2019 and 2021 with 1000 SME owners and decision makers to capture the impact of the pandemic on SMEs, and the impact of Long Covid was stark: in 2021, 35% of SMEs surveyed had a staff member with Long Covid. 38% of SMEs reporting an employee with Long Covid described that long term sickness absence caused a ‘critical’ impact on company finances.
Sickness absence is known to affect SMEs worse than large enterprises and Long Covid is no exception to this. Interestingly, SMEs with proactive attitudes to managing sickness absence beyond minimum statutory requirements were 2.3 times less likely to have lost an employee for health reasons in the past year than SMEs who were complying with the minimum.
Options for support
Due to the ongoing and severe nature of some cases of Long Covid, it can qualify as a disability under certain conditions, where a disability is described as ‘a physical or mental impairment that has a ‘long-term and substantial adverse effect’ on a person’s ability to do normal day-to-day activities’. Long term is defined as either affecting or likely to affect them for at least a year, or likely to last the rest of their life.
People with Long Covid may therefore qualify for government employment support and disability funding via Access To Work. Employers can sometimes lack confidence in their abilities to support disabled staff, with over half of SME owners describing worries of ‘doing the wrong thing’ regarding disability and sickness absence.
Such employers may benefit from disability training by the Disability Confident Scheme which supports employers to, in turn, support their disabled staff.
If an employee in your company has Long Covid and is registered with a City or Hackney GP, support is available via a specialist assessment clinic and/or rehabilitation service.
Further general support and resources for SMEs can be found on the City of London website: Supporting SMEs and Start-ups – City of London
Lastly, the government is offering an extension of support to SMEs via the Recovery Loan Scheme. This will make it easier for small businesses to take out loans and recover from the financial burden of the Pandemic.
Resources and articles for reference:
City & Hackney Long Covid services (referral via a City or Hackney GP for C&H residents)