Layla Moran – 2022 Speech on Long Covid

The statement made by Layla Moran, the Liberal Democrat MP for Oxford West and Abingdon, in the House of Commons on 31 March 2022.

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.

Seema Malhotra (Feltham and Heston) (Lab/Co-op)

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.

Layla Moran

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.

Mary Glindon (North Tyneside) (Lab)

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.

Layla Moran

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.