The DWP is sitting on a Long-Covid benefits timebomb which may be about to explode, if statistics from the ONS and the DWP’s own figures are to be believed. Hundreds of thousands of people are now potentially eligible for PIP and other benefits, as a result of developing the condition.
Figures released by the ONS last week stated that:
962,000 people were experiencing symptoms of Long-Covid that had lasted more than four weeks.
385,000 people who were still experiencing symptoms first had (or suspected they had) COVID-19 at least one year previously.
Symptoms adversely affected the day-to-day activities of 634,000 people (65.9% of those with self-reported Long-Covid), with 178,000 (18.5%) reporting that their ability to undertake their day-to-day activities had been "limited a lot".
Fatigue was the most common symptom reported as part of individuals' experience of Long-Covid (535,000 people), followed by shortness of breath (397,000), muscle ache (309,000), and difficulty concentrating (295,000).
Anyone familiar with PIP qualifying criteria will recognise that may of these symptoms are extremely common grounds for eligibility for PIP.
Someone experiencing fatigue, shortness of breath and muscle ache may have difficulties with many PIP point scoring activities, such as washing and bathing, dressing and undressing and moving around.
Difficulty concentrating may well affect activities including preparing food, reading, making budgeting decisions and planning and following journeys.
The fact that 178,000 people are still experiencing symptoms after a year suggests that it is now clear that Long-Covid is a condition which will often meet the 3 month qualifying period and the 9 month prospective test for PIP.
According to a recent article in Nature, scientists do not yet know whether vaccines prevent Long-Covid and whether vaccinations for people who already have the condition will make it better or worse.
The article also suggested that there is no link between how severe the initial episode of Covid is and the severity of Long-Covid, in those who go on to develop the condition.
It also highlights the similarities between Long-Covid and ME/CFS, which is often linked to viral infections and is the basis of many, often bitterly contested, PIP claims.
Scientists cited by Nature found an even wider range of symptoms than the ONS study, including physical impairments, mental-health difficulties such as anxiety, and cognitive impairments in areas such as memory and language.
All this means that the current rapid increase in infection rates could lead to many thousands more people suffering a debilitating and long-term condition that could give rise to entitlement to benefits.
It will not just be PIP that people with these symptoms may be eligible for, income replacement benefits such as employment and support allowance and universal credit are also relevant.
But it is PIP, which is not means-tested, that will be concerning the DWP the most.
According to the most recent PIP statistics, released last month and covering the quarter to April 2021, new PIP claims have reached an all-time record high.
Reports of changes of circumstances are also at a record high. It is likely that Long-Covid will exacerbate some symptoms for people who already have another health condition, leading them to report a change of circumstances.
This rise is unlikely to simply be the result of things getting back to normal as the country opens up again. PIP claims were already running 5% higher than the previous year by January of this year and changes of circumstances were 18% higher.
So, the continued rise is likely to be due to other factors. The lack of availability of many planned and routine treatments, meaning that people’s conditions worsen, is probably one.
But the appearance of Long-Covid and people’s realisation that they may not get well for a very long time, if at all, is undoubtedly an important part of the picture.
And with infection rates on the rise again, the number of people who develop Long-Covid is likely to be rapidly increasing too.
Expect to see a new PIP battleground opening up if, as seems quite possible, the DWP try to refuse claims on the grounds that the condition does not meet the 9 months prospective test, in spite of all the evidence that for hundreds of people it will.