Progressing Justice for UK Asbestos Victims
The arrival of Covid-19 exacerbated Britains epidemic of asbestos-related diseases in more ways than one. The restrictions introduced and conditions imposed to curtail the spread of the virus delayed potentially life-saving treatments and upended the administration of key government schemes. Early diagnoses of asbestos cancer, essential to optimize treatment outcomes, were forestalled as NHS resources were marshalled to treat Britons with coronavirus and potential patients, wary of the dangers of exposure to the virus in healthcare centers, took shelter at home.
Accepting the changed reality by adopting new protocols for recognizing industrial diseases did not happen overnight and, in some cases, did not happen at all or at least not without sustained pressure being exerted. A prohibition on face-to-face assessments meant that claimants suffering from asbestosis and pleural thickening were left waiting over a year to have their benefit assessed for Industrial Injuries Disablement Benefit (IIDB).1 As the amount of the IIDB was based on the age of claimants when the IIDB was awarded and not when the claims were originally made, delays in processing claims could reduce the size of lump sum payments under the Pneumoconiosis Workers Compensation Scheme.
For months, the Asbestos Victims Support Groups Forum (the Forum) campaigned via social media and in communications with MPs to bring these inequalities to the fore; a Forum tweet uploaded on July 16 was informative:
Before Covid it took on average 9 weeks to process benefit claims for asbestosis and pleural thickening. Why cant this be a benchmark for making payments under the Workers Compensation Scheme? Claimants should not miss out on money due to Covid. This is unjust.
As Forum Chair Joanne Gordon explained:
To access compensation for some payments under the Pneumoconiosis Act 1979, claimants were required to undergo face-to-face assessments. These were cancelled under Covid regulations with the result that many claims remained pending for over a year. As the value of awards decreased with age, these delays would result in financial losses so that someone aged 73 who should have received £16,579 (2020 figures) a year later at age 74 was only entitled to £16,066 (2020 figures), a loss of £513.2
Despite the Forums best efforts, nothing was forthcoming from the Government or civil servants about righting this wrong. Finally, a letter received in July 2021 by Clive Betts MP from the Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work, indicated that change was in the offing:
I am pleased to confirm that we will be awarding a one-off Special Payment for the period of the suspension of face-to-face assessments. This will put claimants back into the position they would have been in had they not been affected by the suspension of services.
Anyone affected by this issue will receive a letter which confirms whether they have qualified for a top-up payment due to the delays caused by the COVID19 pandemic, and the impact it has had on their claim to the Pneumoconiosis Act 1979.
Attempts to confirm details of any restitution program were stonewalled until a response was received from the Press Office of the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) on August 19, 2021 which said:
We are writing to those whose claims under the Pneumoconiosis Act 1979 have been adversely impacted by delays caused by the pandemic. They will receive a one-off payment ensuring they get their full entitlement. This issue was isolated to a small number of claims including sufferers of D1 (pneumoconiosis, including silicosis and asbestosis) and D9 (unilateral or bilateral diffuse pleural thickening) prescribed diseases. The Department began awarding the one-off Special Payments on August 19, 2021.3
Welcoming the news from the DWP, Ms. Gordon commented:
Forum members are relieved to know that this injustice is being addressed. We are very grateful to Clive Betts MP and others, including those active on the Parliamentary Asbestos Sub-Group for their support of the Forums campaign. Unfortunately, according to data released by the HSE last month, its clear that the countrys asbestos epidemic is far from over. We owe it to all those whose lives have been affected by toxic exposures to ensure that they receive the best medical care and the full amount of government compensation to which they are entitled.4
August 20, 2021
1 Email received from Joanne Gordon, August 18, 2021.
2 The amounts of these awards were based on assessments of 100% disability which was unusual for people with asbestosis and pleural thickening. A more usual scenario is the one which follows: John was aged 64 when he put in a claim, he was awarded 20% disability at the age of 65. He should have been entitled to £9,199 but received £8,149 in 2021.
3 Email received from DWP on August 19, 2021.
4 HSE. Mesothelioma statistics for Great Britain, 2021. July, 2021.