Former coal miners fear loss of injury payouts if they die from Covid-19

2 June 2020, 10:10

Former miners are doubly vulnerable to COVID-19
Former miners are doubly vulnerable to COVID-19. Picture: PA
Matthew Thompson

By Matthew Thompson

Former coal miners who die of coronavirus may lose out on thousands of pounds of industrial injury compensation for their families, the Government has been warned.

In letters seen exclusively by LBC, MPs from coal mining communities have written to the Health Secretary and the Justice Secretary to stress the need for “urgent action” to address the situation.

Former miners whose lungs are scarred from years spent underground are doubly vulnerable to COVID-19. The National Union of Miners estimates that 20 to 30 thousand miners are currently shielding due to their underlying conditions. And many of them live in poorer communities, which evidence shows are at higher risk from the virus.

Ex-miners with conditions such as pneumoconiosis, a serious lung disease caused by inhaling dust, are entitled to industrial injury compensation for themselves and their families for their years of ill-health.

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But order to qualify for posthumous compensation, it is crucial that the condition is written on their death certificate. Many miners fear that if they die of COVID-19, they will be classed simply as a coronavirus death, even though it is their underlying lung disease which has made them vulnerable.

If this is not taken into account on the death certificate, their families will struggle to get the money they deserve. Sometimes this can be tens of thousands of pounds.

The letter to Justice Secretary Robert Buckland, MPs write: “We know there are numerous cases of NUM members, for example, where the individual has suffered from pneumoconiosis prior to death, but it was not then recorded on the death certificate.

"One common reason given is that this was not thought to have been the cause of death and therefore not required to be listed on the death certificate, an occurrence we are afraid may increase due to Covid-19.”

It is common for former miners to be misdiagnosed whilst alive, or the severity of their conditions underestimated. Often, it is not until a post-mortem is carried out that the true scale of the damage to the lungs is revealed, meaning that more compensation is due.

However, according to the NUM, so far at least one family has been denied a post-mortem because their loved one had tested positive for COVID-19.

General Secretary of the NUM, Chris Kitchen, said: “The refusal to have a post-mortem will take away the ability for the family to claim compensation. No doubt there will be other families in this situation.”

There is also a concerning trend that conditions such as pneumoconiosis are being recorded on death certificates simply as “industrial disease”, with nothing specifying exactly what disease was present.

This can make it hugely difficult to make a claim, as Mr Kitchen explains: “There are many industrial diseases. Clearly somebody did not die from osteoarthritis of the knee.”

Mining communities are concerned this problem will only get worse due to the glut of deaths due to COVID-19.

In response to a Parliamentary Question on the matter last week, the Department for Work and Pensions said that posthumous claims can be made for up to a year after death, and that: “Any evidence a family can provide that confirms or suggests that the deceased was suffering from a prescribed disease prior to their death would be considered as part of a posthumous claim.

"This includes claimants who may have died as a result of COVID-19, and no mention of the prescribed disease was on their death certificate.

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There are however two problems with this solution. First, it doesn’t address the post-mortem problem, where evidence of disease, or more severe disease, is only discovered after death. Secondly, the NUM says there are already many posthumous claims which have taken longer than a year to complete, and they fear the backlog will only increase due to coronavirus.

As a result, MPs are pressing for more urgent action from Government to go far beyond the existing safeguards, which they fear are insufficient.

In a statement, the Department for Health and Social Care said: “We understand the concerns of former coal miners, and their families due to this pandemic.

“The law states that there is a requirement for a registered medical practitioner to report a death to the coroner if they are made aware that the death is due to an injury or disease attributable to any employment held by the person during the person’s lifetime.

The Department told us the Health Secretary would respond directly to MPs' concerns in due course.