Thousands of people unable to work because of the effects of long Covid are feared to be missing out on financial support, with patients struggling to access and apply for the government’s disability benefits scheme.
More than 300,000 people in the UK have been left with debilitating, persistent symptoms after catching the virus – but figures show only a tiny fraction of these have successfully claimed benefits.
Politicians and campaign groups warn not enough has been done to remove barriers to applying for financial aid.
“A vast number of severely impaired people are simply not getting the help they need and are entitled to,” said Dr Jo House, a spokesperson for Long Covid Support, which has around 50,000 members, the majority of whom are in the UK.
Latest figures show that in January just 937 individuals with the condition had successfully claimed Personal Independence Payment (PIP), which entitles them to £150 a week.
But figures from last month show that 322,000 people in the UK were reporting that their ability to undertake day-to-day activities had been limited “a lot” by long Covid, according to the Office for National Statistics. Some 172,000 of these said they had struggled every day for the past 12 months.
Jenny Ceolta-Smith, of Long Covid Support’s employment group, said there were “multiple barriers in place” when applying for the disability benefit.
She said the assessment process failed to take into account the episodic and fluctuating nature of the condition. “They might be able to perform a one-off activity, but then not do so later in the day,” she said.
Ms Ceolta-Smith, who waited eight months to receive PIP after first making a claim in July 2021, said the application process was also complicated by the need to provide medical evidence to support a claim of mental or physical impairment.
“My assessment was via the phone. When I reported having mental health issues, they said I wasn’t receiving treatment or medication for this. But many people have long delays in accessing mental health services, so they don’t have the written evidence to support their claim.
“The same applies for fatigue, breathing or other physical conditions related to Covid. If people haven’t been able to visit a long Covid clinic or referred elsewhere, there’s a lack of medical evidence. GPs will have some data, but it’s going to be a challenge.”
Coupled with the extensive paperwork and general poor health of those seeking PIP, the application process “can be very arduous”, Ms Ceolta-Smith added, with many patients “weighing up whether to bother if they’re only going to get rejected”.
Labour’s Jonathan Ashworth, the shadow secretary for work and pensions, said the right to statutory sick pay for long Covid sufferers should be reinstated, adding that the number of people successfully claiming PIP was “just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to those who need financial support to live with the condition”.
The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) said it was unable to provide a figure for how many people with long Covid had applied for PIP. The number has risen month on month since March 2021, when the benefits scheme first acknowledged the condition as a disability.
PIP provides help with living costs for people with a long-term physical or mental health condition who have difficulty carrying out everyday tasks. The payment can be awarded to these individuals even if they’re continuing to work.
The payment is split into two, providing financial aid for daily living and for mobility-related needs. Depending on the severity of their condition, a long Covid sufferer could receive up to £89.60 for the former and up to £62.55 for the latter, amounting to £152.15 in total. Patients are eligible for assessment if they’ve had persistent symptoms for more than three months.
But since March 2021, just 1,584 people with long Covid have been assessed by the PIP programme. Out of these, 937 are currently receiving benefits, while the remaining 647 are awaiting final clearance from the government, have been rejected, or are appealing against the outcome of their application.
The DWP said award lengths and rates depend on individual circumstances. Payments for other long-term conditions are typically provided for many months, even years.
Layla Moran MP, chair of the all-party parliamentary group on coronavirus, said the low number of successful claimants over the past 12 months “suggests the government is failing to address the impact of long Covid both on people’s health and the UK workforce”.
She called on ministers to “review current financial support available to people who are, as a result [of long Covid]losing their jobs and income”.
The DWP said that the true number of people receiving PIP is likely to be higher than 937. This is because the program was amended in March 2021 to acknowledge and record long Covid claimants. Before then, awardees suffering from long-term symptoms were classified according to the main disabling condition identified at the time, such as respiratory illness or fatigue, rather than Covid.
A government spokesperson said: “For anyone with a disability or long-term health condition, including long Covid, there is a strong financial safety net, including statutory sick pay, ESA and universal credit.
“PIP is available to people with long-term health conditions or disabilities and is assessed on the basis of someone’s needs and not a diagnosis or condition.”