Working during the pandemic: why vulnerable people with asthma need more protection

Joe Farrington-Douglas and Andrew Cumella from our Policy team look at the concerns of people going to work and those working from home, and make the case for better protection for working people with asthma

19 June 2020

People going to work don’t feel safe

All people with asthma are classed as ‘clinically vulnerable’ because the government believed they were higher risk from complications of a COVID-19 infection. They are advised to stay at home or only work in the safest roles with social distancing. However, about a quarter of  respondents to a survey we ran in June 2020 were still going out to work by the end of May – including 5% of people who were shielding. Of course, many key workers have never stopped working, and many have put themselves at risk of COVID-19. Two out of three of all workers going out to work said they felt their work was either unsafe, or they weren’t sure about workplace safety.

40% of those going out to work are in workplaces where they might be exposed to COVID-19, and have raised concerns about PPE, or haven’t been redeployed. A particular concern is that people aren’t able to socially distance in the workplace, despite government guidance for workplaces, and the requirement that vulnerable workers should have the safest roles on site.

People going out to work are more likely to be on lower incomes

This is an important factor in why more people on lower incomes have caught COVID-19, and due to poor health and other factors, poorer people have also been more likely to die. People in more manual or caring jobs that cannot be done at home are often in lower status roles with less control over their working conditions. It’s unfair that your income – which already makes your asthma worse – is also putting you at higher risk of catching COVID at work.

People also feel under pressure to return to work before it’s safe

We also surveyed those who have been working from home. More than a third (38%) felt they were pressured to go back before they thought it was safe. Worryingly, this includes 33% of people who have been shielding. Based on the experience of those who are already back at work, it’s unsurprising that people with asthma are worried about safety when they do go back to work (being unable to socially distance, and their asthma not being taken seriously) are well founded. This is a concern given what we’ve learned about those going to work already.

People have already taken a big hit on their income

Although a majority of people have kept all their income since the lockdown, 17% of non-shielders and 30% of shielders have lost income, either because they’re on reduced furlough pay, they’ve had fewer hours of work, or they’re on extended leave.

Many told us they’re worried about losing income if they don’t go back to work, even if they don’t think it’s safe.

‘Vulnerable’ workers need better protection, particularly if they’ve been shielding

Government has provided some protection for shielders from having to work, and many have benefited from the furlough scheme. However, our survey reveals that many people with asthma who haven’t met the shielding criteria but are still ‘vulnerable’, have been exposed at work and under pressure to go back before it’s safe.

For the next phase of the pandemic, as businesses reopen and people are released from some of the protections of shielding, Asthma UK and other charities representing vulnerable people are calling for:

  • Much more personalised guidance about risk for individuals – e.g. younger women with well-controlled asthma are lower risk, but older black men with multiple conditions are more vulnerable
  • Awareness raising about who is vulnerable and how to keep vulnerable workers safe
  • Clear health and safety policies to safeguard the most vulnerable, and ensure that no one should have to choose between risking their health and losing their job.

[i] Asthma UK ran an online survey from 29th May to 3rd June to find out more about people with asthma and their experiences of employment during the pandemic and future employment concerns. The survey gained 4,959 responses (of whom 4,503 were in work before the coronavirus pandemic).