Boris Johnson is facing fresh calls to compensate keyworkers suffering from “long Covid”.
A total of 65 MPs and peers have signed a letter to the PM, asking for it to be recognised as an occupational disease.
Layla Moran, who chairs a committee of MPs looking into coronavirus, said the government should not abandon “the true heroes of the pandemic”.
A Department of Health spokesman said it was important employers “make full use” of existing support for staff.
Long Covid presents as a range of different symptoms suffered by people weeks or months after being infected with the virus – some of whom weren’t seriously ill when they had it.
According to the British Medical Journal, it is thought to occur in approximately 10% of people infected – but that number only represents those who have been tested, meaning some who caught the virus in the early stages of the pandemic will be missing from the figures.
On Thursday, the government announced an £18.5m investment into four studies to better understand the longer term effects of Covid on physical and mental health, and how to tackle it.
The letter to Mr Johnson was organised by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Coronavirus – led by the Liberal Democrat MP, Ms Moran – and it says approximately 390,000 people will have long Covid in the UK.
The cross-party group of MPs – backed by the British Medical Association and members of the House of Lords – wants the government to follow the example of countries including Spain, France, Germany, Belgium and Denmark, which formally recognise Covid as an “occupational disease”.
By defining it in this way, employees and their dependents would be entitled to protection and compensation if they contracted the virus while working.
The group is recommending a programme similar to the Armed Forces Compensation Scheme to support frontline NHS, social care and key workers who now cannot return to work because of long Covid.
They first made the call in January and wrote to the PM again last week to push forward the campaign, saying any delays to such a scheme would be a “dereliction of duty and amounts to abandoning the very people to whom we owe the most” – but they are yet to receive a reply.
‘It feels like being slowly erased’
Iona Fabian loves her job as a secondary school teacher. But after contracting Covid in March 2020, she fears for her future.
“Like many people who got it in March, I didn’t know that is what I had,” the 52-year-old said. “I mostly had a very sore throat and just felt very, very tired, so I just took to my bed for three or four days.”
Iona felt like she had recovered but gradually her symptoms got worse, and come June, she “suddenly went down like a ton of bricks” and could not get out of bed for weeks.
“I was just staying alive at that point,” she said. “As the weeks went on it felt like being slowly erased, all your plans and all the things you normally do in your life being taken away one by one.”
Doctors told her it was long Covid and the impact on her life, and her work, has been stark ever since.
“I tried to do a phased return to work in September, but realised I could barely stand up and I was white as a sheet,” she said.
“It is one thing going back to work in lockdown, but different than it will be in real life because of the physicality of standing up, as breathing and walking is really, really difficult.”
Iona is now joining the calls to make long Covid an occupational disease and to give those keyworkers with it more support.
Ms Moran said long Covid was “the hidden health crisis of the pandemic”.
“When it comes to frontline NHS, care and key workers, they were specifically asked to go to work and save lives while everyone else was asked to stay at home,” she said.
“They are the true heroes of the pandemic and, sadly, many have developed the debilitating effects of long Covid, meaning that they are unable to return to full time work.
“The government cannot abandon them now or ever.”
Tory MP and doctor Dan Poulter, who is the vice-chair of the group, added: “The government asked frontline medical staff and key workers to look after us during the pandemic.
“Now it is government’s turn to look after the heroes of the pandemic by launching a comprehensive compensation scheme for those of them living with long Covid.”
The campaign has the backing of the British Medical Association, with the chair of its council, Dr Chaand Nagpaul, saying the “debt of gratitude” owed to keyworkers “cannot be underestimated”.
He said: “While the government and employers must increase efforts to protect staff now and stop them contracting Covid-19 in the first place, for some it is already too late.
“So it is only right that ministers urgently provide a compensation scheme to support healthcare staff and their families who are now living with the devastating after-effects of Covid-19.”
A spokesman for the Department of Health and Social Care said the “indiscriminate and lasting impact” Covid-19 can have should act as a “clear reminder to everyone” to follow the guidance and restrictions.
“We are grateful for the hard work and dedication of our health and social care staff throughout the pandemic and it is important that staff are treated fairly, and employers make full use of the existing sick pay provisions on offer to support staff,” he added.
“We are continuing to work with our outstanding scientists to improve our collective understanding of the impact long Covid has on people of all ages – making sure we deliver the best support possible to affected individuals.”