COVID-19 can cause symptoms for some people that can last weeks or months after the infection has gone. This has become widely known as ‘long COVID’. Long COVID can affect anyone, including working-age individuals who were previously in good health as well as those for whom the virus was not severe. Long COVID encompasses a wide range of symptoms including breathlessness, fatigue, skin rashes and ‘brain fog’ and those suffering are continuing to report symptoms many months after contracting the initial infection.
The Office for National Statistics has estimated that over one million people have reported experiencing long COVID. Accordingly, the novel disease is starting to have an impact on businesses as workers who are affected try to get back to the workplace. The new Acas guidance offers practical tips for employers to manage the various effects of the condition as well as a range of options that can help staff get back to work safely.
Until more is known about the condition and its long-term impact, employers will need to be mindful that an employee with long COVID (or one who is associated with someone suffering from long COVID) may attract additional protections under the Equality Act 2010. Employers will need to talk with affected employees and make enquiries into the severity and possible duration of the condition. Detailed input from occupational health or the individual’s GP should be sought if necessary. Employers should be careful to avoid treating long COVID sufferers less favorably because of the condition itself, but also as a result of anything arising from the condition. For example, taking disciplinary action against an employee for long COVID-related sickness absence may well give rise to discrimination arising from disability claims.
In relation to the duty to make reasonable adjustments it will undoubtedly be difficult (given the unpredictability and diverse range of long COVID symptoms) to anticipate what adjustments may be required to support long COVID sufferers in their return to work. Employers will need to engage thoroughly with occupational health and work to identify the particular support that may be needed in each case, whether that be altering duties, working hours or location of work (including an extension of remote working).
For more information on any of the items raised in this article please contact a member of the Employment Law Team.