As the nation marks Action Mesothelioma Day (3 July), Thompsons Solicitors, regional asbestos groups and specialist mesothelioma nurses continue to support people with asbestos diseases during the COVID-19 crisis.

However, many suffering from symptoms of asbestos diseases, and those families who are coming to terms with a diagnosis, will have understandable concerns around the impact of COVID-19 on their access to treatment, support and justice.

The below Q&A addresses some of the commonly asked questions from people with asbestos diseases during the pandemic period.

What should I do if I begin suffering unusual symptoms? Are they the same as COVID-19?

Simon Bolton, specialist nurse at Mesothelioma Support Yorkshire, said: “Some of the common symptoms of asbestos-related diseases are the same as those reported in COVID-19 - coughs, breathlessness and chest pain, in particular. While the advice at the start of this pandemic very much focused on staying at home and staying safe, it has shifted to encourage people to seek help and advice if they have worrying signs of a potentially serious illness.

“Suspected cancer referrals throughout the UK have fallen dramatically. This is a worry as the feeling is that many thousands of people will eventually present to their doctor with a later stage or incurable disease, the outcome of which may have been very different, had they presented sooner.”

If I am referred to hospital because of a potential asbestos disease, how will I be kept safe?

Mr Bolton said: “All staff are wearing face masks and, in some settings, additional Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), to keep both them and the patients safe. There are far fewer people being admitted now with symptoms, and testing is also underway for people coming in for invasive procedures. This means there’s less chance of coming into contact with another person who is harbouring the virus.”

Will I still be able to access treatment if I am diagnosed with an asbestos-related disease during the pandemic?

Mr Bolton added: “Any person who is considered for systemic therapy is carefully assessed, as all of these treatments have potentially life-threatening side-effects. The assessment is undoubtedly even more considered at present, as coming in and out of hospital for appointments, tests and treatments increases the risk of exposure to the virus, which is more dangerous for those undergoing treatments, such as chemotherapy.”

How has COVID-19 affected the legal process?

Helen Tomlin, asbestos specialist at Thompsons, said: “Despite the obvious limitations caused by lockdown, we have taken every measure possible to ensure our clients’ cases are progressed as quickly as possible.

“We’ve kept in regular contact with our clients via telephone and video conferencing software. We found that the court service has remained helpful and was particularly prompt in dealing with asbestos claims, and we also continued to receive client medical notes from hospitals and GP surgeries, despite the difficulties they faced on the front line against COVID-19. All of these things, thankfully, allowed us to keep matters moving forward to ensure that our clients are still able to access justice, despite the unprecedented circumstances.”

Should I still make a legal claim?

Ms Tomlin added: “Absolutely. Acting fast is vital when dealing with claims for asbestos diseases, which can cause a person’s health to deteriorate rapidly in a matter of months, if not weeks. Even if you can’t face the thought of legal action now, it is important that you speak to a specialist solicitor as soon as possible, to preserve your evidence of exposure now, in case you or your family want to explore your options and take action in the future.

“It came as no surprise that diagnoses for cancers have dropped significantly during the lockdown period, with many avoiding their GP and hospitals due to the pandemic. While this self-imposed isolation and responsible use of NHS resources is laudable, and has resulted in the NHS managing to survive through the pandemic, it remains important that people who have symptoms of an asbestos disease visit their GP as soon as they can.

“Ultimately, if diagnosed early, the possibilities of accessing specialist advice and legal support are much improved.”

If I am diagnosed with an asbestos-related disease, who should I contact?

Richard Mullens, at London Asbestos Support, said: “Your consultant or clinical nurse specialist will normally provide you with details of a local support group or organisation, who can provide ongoing support to you and your family.”

Andy Turner, at the Yorkshire and Humberside Asbestos Victims Support Group (SARAG), added: “Support groups provide a variety of services. Some group members provide a specialist, dedicated and comprehensive advice service, while other groups are dedicated to funding mesothelioma research. While all group members actively campaign on a wide range of issues, some group members campaign on specific issues as well, providing invaluable information and research.”

What adaptations have local asbestos groups made to deal with COVID-19? Will I be safe?

Joanne Gordon, from the Derbyshire Asbestos Support Team (DAST), said: “Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, a team member from the asbestos support group would visit a person with an asbestos disease at home. This is, of course, not happening now, but phone and video calls are being held regularly to ensure regular contact.”

Jo Barnes-Mannings, from Asbestos Awareness & Support Cymru (AASC), added: “As well as home visits, we have had to cancel or postpone all meetings and events. Typically, these have been a great way for patients and families to share their stories and we are, as a result, considering a series of virtual events so that we can keep the conversation going, even during these very tough times. Many groups are already holding virtual meetings, until we can get back to face-to-face meetings safely.”

Are claims for benefits still being processed during the pandemic?

Robert Rayner, at the Greater Manchester Asbestos Victims Support Group (GMAVSG), said: “Benefit claims for mesothelioma and asbestos-related lung cancer are being processed as normal. Asbestos victims support groups are pushing for claims for asbestosis and diffuse pleural thickening to be processed by the Department for Work and Pensions too, so that no-one loses out financially.”

Alison Davenport, from the Cheshire Asbestos Victims Support Group (CAVSG), added: “In addition to individual claims, groups are still able to submit claims for benign cases – however, those claims do require an assessment of disability to be undertaken, which is difficult in the current circumstances. We are pushing the government to make sure that benefits claims are back dated to the date the application was received by the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP), rather than the date of the assessment, to make sure no-one is disadvantaged by the delays. This situation could change as lockdown is eased, but we advise you contact a local group for the latest information and to lodge your claim as early as possible.” 

I am really worried about my diagnosis and treatment. Where can I get extra support?

To contact your local asbestos support group for help and support with your asbestos related diagnosis, benefits information and up to date information on your options, visit the Asbestos Victims Support Groups Forum website here.

Mesothelioma UK, the national charity, can also provide help and support specifically to patients and families diagnosed with mesothelioma.

For specialist advice or to start a claim, call us on 0800 0224 0224, or email asbestos@thompsons.law.co.uk with your contact details and a member of the specialist team in your local area will be in touch.