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Women are more likely to experience long Covid but, once again, the system of support doesn’t meet their needs

The emergence of long Covid has exposed yet another way in which the pandemic has disproportionately affected women in Scotland. Long Covid describes symptoms that persist four weeks after contracting the virus. A TUC survey found that those with long-term Covid symptoms experienced brain fog (72%), shortness of breath (70%), difficulty concentrating (62%) and memory problems (54%). These symptoms have led to workers having to reduce their working hours, or stop working altogether.

Recent analysis found that over two million people in the UK are known to have experienced long Covid and a review of risk factors found consistent evidence for an increased risk amongst women. Among symptomatic people, the persistence of one or more symptoms for 12 weeks or longer was higher in women than men. While acute cases of Covid tend to be mostly male and over 50, long Covid sufferers are both relatively young and overwhelmingly women.

Women’s increased likelihood of having long Covid therefore creates challenges for women’s labour market participation, particularly as employer responses to long Covid have made sustaining paid work particularly difficult. A recent TUC survey found that:

As women are more likely to experience long Covid, inadequate employer responses are threatening women’s labour market participation and financial security. It’s therefore critical that women who have had to leave their job, or reduce their working hours, are able to access financial support.

The rate of Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) remains insufficient at £96.35 per week, and has put women with long Covid, and their children, at increased risk of poverty. SSP is only payable for up to 28 weeks, and many women with long Covid are now reaching the end of entitlement, making them reliant on a social security system that doesn’t meet their needs.

Other women will have missed out on SSP entirely. Despite women being more likely to be in jobs with high-exposure to Covid-19, women’s concentration in low-paid and precarious work makes them less likely to be eligible for SSP. Work from the Women’s Budget Group found that women hold 70% of jobs that are not entitled to SSP.

There is therefore a need for strong employer and Government responses to protect the financial security of women experiencing long Covid symptoms.

The TUC have called for the UK Government to urgently recognise long Covid as a disability under the Equality Act, highlighting that many individuals experiencing long Covid already meet the 12-month criteria for a ‘long-term’ condition. This would ensure that employers cannot legally discriminate against workers with long Covid while also putting a duty on employers to make reasonable adjustments that remove, reduce or prevent any disadvantages workers with long Covid face. Of course, this should be accompanied by financial support for workers who have not yet met the 12-month threshold.

There have also been calls for long Covid to be recognised as an occupational disease to give employees and their dependants access to protection and compensation if they contracted the virus while working. This is particularly important for women who make up vast majority (79%) of key workers in Scotland, meaning they have greater exposure to the virus in the workplace. Figures from the HSE covering the period of April to September 2020 found that three-quarters of employer Covid-19 disease reports made in Scotland related to a female employee.

Earlier this year, Close the Gap responded to the consultation on Mark Griffin’s proposed Scottish Employment Injuries Advisory Council Bill. We highlighted that the current system of Employment Injuries Assistance and Industrial Injuries Disablement Benefit (IIDB) does not meet women’s needs and is ultimately unfit for purpose. Women workers face significant challenges in receiving support through the current system and these issues are likely to come to the fore in the context of long Covid.

This proposed Bill is therefore an important, and timely, intervention. The Bill can have a positive impact on equality through a focus on commissioning research relating to women’s experiences of industrial injury; the development of new mechanisms and definitions which improve women’s access to EIA; and changes to the list of prescribed illness and diseases. At present, only 16% of those claiming IIDB are women.

Historically, less attention has been given to the health and safety needs of women. The pandemic has also highlighted issues with women’s access to suitable Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). Only 29% of women report that the PPE they use is specifically designed for women, meaning that it is not fit for purpose. Inappropriate PPE leaves women further exposed to Covid-19, posing a severe risk to the safety of women workers and their families. Female-dominated sectors such as care have also suffered from a lack of PPE during the pandemic.

Women’s experiences of long Covid and the barriers to accessing adequate support have, once again, highlighted the persistence of structural issues around women’s low-paid and precarious work; the inability of the social security system to meet women’s needs; and the need for urgent reform of our employment injuries assistance system.

Employers need to effectively support women workers with long Covid, and the UK Government must urgently introduce measures to ensure women have access to adequate financial support. Without such action, long Covid will further entrench women’s inequality in the labour market.

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