On 29 January 2020, the UK recorded its first two cases of Covid-19. The following day WHO declared a global health emergency. Three years on, and after numerous lockdowns, restrictions in the UK are currently limited to people arriving from China into England needing to provide proof of a negative Covid-19 test. While the pandemic may be all but over - the effects are not.
It is estimated that over 200,000 people have died from Covid-19 in the UK since the start of the pandemic with 24.3 million people having tested positive. A number of these will include those who were exposed to Covid-19 at their place of work.
In Scotland, the Covid-19 Deaths Investigation Team (the CDIT) has been established within the Crown Office. It is investigating deaths due to Covid-19, or presumed Covid-19, in a number of situations including where the deceased may have contracted the virus in the course of their employment. The CDIT will be considering the necessity for and preparation of any Fatal Accident Inquiries relating to deaths from Covid-19 in Scotland. They have not, as yet, recommended prosecution of any business or organisation for Covid-19 regulatory breaches.
There has yet to be a Fatal Accident Inquiry considering Covid-19 as a cause of death in Scotland, but a Coroner's Inquest in Wales has already recognised Covid-19 as an industrial disease. Trade unions have called on the UK Government to classify Covid-19 as an industrial disease on the basis of a significant number of people being exposed to Covid-19 in their workplace. Such a classification may give those impacted the ability to claim for certain financial support from the Department for Work and Pensions. Other countries including Australia and Canada have already classified Covid-19 as an industrial disease subject to evidence of infection through work. In France, if a healthcare worker has been affected by a severe form of Covid-19 it is automatically treated as an industrial disease. In nearly half of US states, it is presumed that if first responders and key workers get Covid-19 that they did so whilst at work.
In January 2023, an inquest into the deaths of two nurses delivered the finding of Covid-19 as an industrial disease. The two nurses were working in two different hospitals run by the same Health Board in Wales at the beginning of the pandemic. Gareth Morgan Roberts became ill in March 2020 and died 11 April 2020, and Dominga David was sent home from work ill on 31 March 2020 and died on 26 May 2020. Whilst they were working during the pandemic both nurses were only using PPE when directly treating patients and patients were not being routinely tested for the infection.
The health board argued that the deaths were from natural causes, with the families arguing for a finding of industrial disease. The inquest looked at the national guidance that was in place in the early stages of the pandemic including infection prevention and control, PPE and risk assessments of employees.
In his determination, the coroner told the inquest that "on the balance of probabilities, exposure more likely happened at work and infection happened as a result of that exposure." It was found that although the two nurses were given appropriate PPE, they had both been "exposed to Covid-19 infection at work, became infected and that infection caused" their deaths.
The Industrial Injuries Advisory Council
Ministers can prescribe an illness as an industrial disease subject to guidance from the Industrial Injuries Advisory Council (IIAC). In November 2022, the IIAC produced a report on Covid-19 and Occupational Impacts as a consequence of increased data providing an insight into the longer term health impacts of the infection.
In its report, the IIAC identified five serious complications following Covid-19 that have been shown to cause 'persistent impairment and loss of function in some people':
1. Persistent pneumonitis or lung fibrosis following acute Covid-19 pneumonitis;
2. Persisting pulmonary hypertension following a pulmonary embolism developing 3 days before and 90 days after a Covid-19 diagnosis;
3. Ischaemic stroke developing within 28 days of a Covid-19 diagnosis;
4. Myocardial infarction developing within 28 days of a Covid-19 diagnosis; and
5. Symptoms of Post Intensive Care Syndrome following ventilatory support treatment for Covid-19.
What could happen next?
If the UK Government does choose to implement the IIAC recommendations and prescribe the above complications from Covid-19 as an industrial disease, impacted people may be able to claim Industrial Injuries Disablement Benefits to support them with their ongoing symptoms.