Long Covid: The price of risking one’s life to save others?

During the Covid pandemic NHS staff have worked to save other people’s lives knowing there was a real risk of catching Covid themselves. Front line staff such as nurses, midwives, doctors and healthcare assistants were especially at risk. Hundreds have died as a result and many thousands left with Long Covid.

Many infected staff recover, but others can only do light work or work part time, whilst some have been off work for many months, unable to even do light work, often constantly exhausted with a cocktail of medical conditions. It is a disability epidemic affecting, perhaps, 1% of the NHS workforce.

In 2020 we clapped these staff as heroes whilst the Chancellor of the Exchequer (one Rishi Sunak) said

I can say absolutely categorically the NHS will get whatever resources it needs to get us through this and to respond to the health crisis.”

Fast forward two years and Health Ministers for Scotland, Wales and England are now rewarding those nurses and other NHS staff by ending their Covid sick pay now cut to a maximum of 6 months full pay and 6 months half pay (some will be on less) followed by threatened redundancy if they haven’t recovered at a time when, for example, we are tens of thousands of nurses short.

This is a major public scandal. It is a breach of the duty of care the country owes to those who put their lives at risk saving others.

Ministers were warned early in 2020 that failing to undertake statutory health and safety risk assessments and failing to provide appropriate PPE was putting staff at serious risk. Public Health England researchers stated it was likely that 89% of NHS staff had contracted Covid 19 through “occupational exposure”. At one point half of all new infections reported were among healthcare workers.

Previous Long Covid guidance recognised the complexity and severity of the condition. Previous Government endorsed guidance (as recently as 21 February 2022) stated:

“Recovering from Long Covid can be a lengthy process and colleagues will need to be supported to recover at their own pace. All line managers are therefore encouraged to read about the varying symptoms of Long COVID and acknowledge that this can affect colleagues in different ways. Long COVID is considered an illness with a complex recovery (this can sometimes be referred to as a ‘non-linear recovery’), which means it is likely that relapses will occur.

“Some colleagues might return to work when feeling better or able to perform their duties, and shortly need to take time off again when symptoms return or affect their ability to work. The recovery process will be different for each colleague, and therefore line managers are encouraged to support colleagues on a one-to-one basis, seeking to understand and respect their experience of Long COVID”.

These statements remain in the recently revised NHS England Covid-19 guidance. The rates of Covid infection remain very high, whilst evidence suggests that the chances of Long Covid following a covid infection increase with each re-infection. Since healthcare professionals are more at risk of developing Long Covid this problem will not go away, especially as basic protection methods have been weakened thanks to the Government’s so-called “living with Covid” strategy (see: https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2022/jul/09/long-covid-what-we-know-about-it-and-how-best-to-treat-it). 

Trade unions opposed the change and promise to support individual staff, but it is surely time to do more. NHS employers promote inclusion and compassion. It should not be up to exhausted individual healthcare workers to have to demonstrate they meet the definition of being disabled, that they caught Covid at work, or find out if they have an entitlement to personal injury benefits.

The Government has a duty of care to those staff who exercised their duty of care to others and were injured in doing so. So here are ten suggestions to help remedy this scandal:

  1. The Government should immediately restore the Covid sick pay safety net to avoid pushing more nurses into destitution
  2. Long Covid should, by default, be treated as a disability under the 2010 Equality Act once a member of staff has been sick for 12 months or more, and workplace policies should acknowledge this
  3. The Government should ensure Long Covid is recognised as an occupational disease
  4. Employers and management should alert all affected staff to the 3-year time limit for lodging a Personal Injury Claim and trade unions should encourage (and support) all affected members to lodge such claims
  5. There should be a complete national reboot of phased returns to work recognising the unpredictable nature of Long Covid, with individualised bespoke return to work packages for all staff with an extended phased return of at least 12 weeks and longer where needed, along with a plan for how to manage relapses and the ability to work from home quicker – alongside fair redeployment
  6. NHS employers should step up support for staff able to return to work by ensuring quicker access to appropriate diagnostic tests and for the resources for new tests to be put in place as new evidence emerges e.g., venous blood gases, micro-clots, xenon CT scans of the lungs
  7. There should be an immediate equality impact assessment of the likely impact of the recent changes which are likely to disproportionately impact staff who are disabled and staff from ethnic minority heritage.
  8. The national guidance on Long Covid sick pay should be amended to reflect the fact that currently most staff who apply for ill health early retirement due to Long Covid are turned down due to lack of evidence about the long-term outcomes.
  9. No staff member should be forced to take ill-health early retirement if they face a major loss of planned income by doing so
  10. The Government should guarantee an immediate increase in funding for research into treatments for Long Covid

Anything less is a betrayal of those who risked their lives to save others.

If you think covid sick pay for NHS staff should be reinstated please sign this petition.

Roger Kline (@RogerKline) is Research Fellow at Middlesex University Business School

 

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