When the UK was placed into lockdown in March 2020 and the population braced itself for the impending impact of a wave of Covid-19 infections, few people were thinking about the possibility of a flu-like virus causing longer-term health problems.
Within two months, however, a proportion of those affected by Covid began talking about how they were experiencing a slower-than-expected recovery, citing a number of common symptoms including fatigue, loss of the sense of smell (anosmia), breathlessness and aching following physical exertion, and mental sluggishness – commonly referred to as “brain fog”.
Today, long Covid remains an informal term to describe the various signs and symptoms that continue or develop after a four-week ‘acute’ Covid infection. The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) breaks it down further into either Ongoing symptomatic Covid for those affected up to 12 weeks after infection or Post-Covid Syndrome for those affected beyond 12 weeks whose symptoms cannot be explained by any other condition.
There is evidence that vaccination can reduce the risk of being affected by long Covid, but no treatments are available, meaning sufferers are left to manage their individual symptoms as part of a gradual recovery.
A growing problem
Numbers of those self-reporting long Covid has increased consistently since summer 2021, according to data from the Office for National Statistics. In the month to 5 March 2022, an estimated 1.7 million people in the UK (2.7% of the population) said they were experiencing symptoms, representing an 82% increase over an eight-month period. Prevalence was found to be highest in people aged 35 to 49 years, with 322,000 stating that their ability to undertake day-to-day activities had been “limited a lot”.
These figures show how long Covid presents a challenge for both the employees affected and their employers. While many workers might need to be absent as part of their recovery, those workers struggling with symptoms such as fatigue and tiredness are unlikely to be operating at their full capacity, which can have a knock-on effect for team productivity and continuity of business operations.
Providing support for unwell workers at such a difficult time is a valuable and important part of the employer-employee relationship. At a personal level, individuals suffering with the physical impact of long Covid might also find themselves facing mental health issues, such as feelings of anxiety or depression, as a result of their ongoing situation.
Emotional and economic considerations
Employee benefit schemes can provide some relief for those affected – although it is important to note that workplace private medical insurance (PMI) schemes or critical illness policies would typically provide cover related to acute conditions or unexpected serious illness, and long Covid, as the name indicates, is likely to be considered a chronic condition and, therefore, might not be covered under the terms of the policy.
That said, PMI can play a valuable role for those who go on to experience long Covid because of the complex nature of the condition. For example, individuals may be affected in any number of ways over time, and this can present itself in a wide variety of symptoms, including respiratory, cardiovascular, musculoskeletal and dermatological problems as well as more generalised symptoms, such as fatigue.
In this context, securing a diagnosis – or ruling out long Covid – can be a lengthy process under the care of an already overstretched NHS. Private cover, in contrast, can provide much faster access to GP consultations and allow individuals to take greater control over their healthcare choices. For the employee concerned, it can introduce a more positive sense of progress into a situation where they may have otherwise felt helpless and frustrated. Assuming the terms of the policy allow, it could also provide financial comfort in relation to costs accumulated in this exploratory, pre-diagnosis phase.
Accessing supporting services
Over time, as the understanding around long Covid and its far-reaching impact has grown, healthcare insurance providers have also expanded the support offered to those affected. AXA Health, for example, has developed a long-Covid care programme for those receiving a referral from a GP. This includes a remote consultation with a specialist and a rehabilitation programme that includes weekly calls with a trained physiotherapist and online group support.
The provision of an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) can also complement in-house personnel support and any financial help provided by PMI, providing workers with access to professional advisory services to help with their recovery from long Covid. This form of intervention can lift workers’ morale, help accelerate their recovery, and speed their return to the workplace.
With restrictions having eased and the UK having progressed to a new, less intense phase after two years of living with the pandemic, it can be tempting to think Covid has all but gone away. The growing presence of long Covid, however, tells us that tackling the virus will remain a priority issue for worker wellbeing and business health for some time to come.
The information contained within this communication does not constitute financial advice and is provided for general information purposes only. No warranty, whether express or implied is given in relation to such information. Vintage Health or any of its associated representatives shall not be liable for any technical, editorial, typographical or other errors or omissions within the content of this communication.