Nurses are among those urging governments across the UK to reinstate special Covid-19 sick pay policies for NHS staff and are appealing for support from the profession and the public via an online petition.
The petition, which demands that special Covid-19 sick pay is reintroduced, has received more than 38,000 signatures in just under a month.
It was launched by midwife Maria Esslinger-Raven on behalf of health professionals like herself who have long Covid.
“People’s financial security has been wiped away”
She said: “NHS staff continue to work long hours with suboptimal staffing and put their health and safety at risk.
“Removing Covid pay and sickness leave protection not only is an abomination and an insult to their sacrifices, but it could cause for patient and workforce safety to reduce for several reasons.”
The petition has been promoted and supported by Long Covid Nurses and Midwives UK (LCNMUK), a campaign and advocacy group for NHS nurses and midwives with long Covid.
Dr Alison Twycross, nursing academic and chair of LCNMUK, told Nursing Times that taking away Covid-19 sick pay measures for health staff was “outrageous and immoral”.
Their concerns follow announcements made by the governments in England, Scotland and Wales in July which meant that special sickness absence policies introduced in wake of the pandemic were being removed.
This means time off for Covid-19 by NHS staff would be treated the same as any other sickness absence.
Special arrangements in England, for example, had enabled nurses to receive full pay for Covid-19-related absence for the entire time they are off work, regardless of their length of service.
Normally, nurses with more than five years of service are entitled to six months’ full pay and then six months at half pay, but those with fewer years of service get less.
The Covid-19 policy was withdrawn in England on 7 July. This means staff who were receiving Covid-19 sick pay will be transitioned back to their normal contractual sick pay entitlements from 1 September.
The changes differ slightly between the UK countries.
In Scotland, special Covid-19 leave provisions end on 31 August and will be replaced with normal terms and conditions as of 1 September.
“Not being fit enough to return to work and facing a future where I potentially may not be able to be a midwife is devastating”
Meanwhile, in Wales, as of 1 July pay will depend on the length of service and length of sickness period.
For example, NHS staff in Wales who have been absent for less than 12 months with Covid-19 sickness absence will continue to receive full pay up to one year from when they first went off sick. Staff will then be moved to half pay for the length of time stipulated in their contracts.
Both Ms Esslinger-Raven and Dr Twycross have called on nurses and other health professionals to continue to sign the petition, as well as to write to their MPs and representatives in government about reinstating Covid-19 sick pay.
Ms Esslinger-Raven said: “For me, not being fit enough to return to work and facing a future where I potentially may not be able to be a midwife is devastating.
“I hope the government sees sense and brings back sick pay and protected leave to give me and others with long Covid a chance to recover and return to the careers we love.”
Meanwhile, Dr Twycross said the petition would be used “as ammunition” to get decision makers and governments, to listen to their concerns.
In an interview with Nursing Times, she warned of the ongoing “postcode lottery” that exists for health staff dealing with long Covid.
“Basically, people’s financial security has been wiped away,” she said.
“We have some staff who have already been dismissed, we have some staff on half pay, some who are on no pay. The inequity of that really irritates staff.”
According to latest data from the Office of National Statistics, around 1.6 million people in England are experiencing ongoing Covid-19 symptoms lasting more than four weeks, with around one in five saying it has a significant impact on their daily life.
Dr Twycross also described how the ongoing workforce crisis is putting employers and staff in an uncompromising position, and in some cases is forcing staff with long Covid to go back to work too soon.
She stressed that employers need to be aware and be able to accommodate for the fact that long Covid is a relapsing remitting disease, meaning symptoms may vary in severity from day to day.
“If they don’t look after these people, they’re going to lose them from the workforce completely. Surely having someone back for a few hours a week is better than nothing,” she said.
Dr Twycross added that employers “need to get smarter at thinking outside the box” so that nurses who are unable to work in clinical practice due to long Covid symptoms can still work in some capacity.
“It’s about adopting a vocational rehabilitation approach to getting back to work,” she said.
Calls to reinstate Covid-19 sick pay come as the NHS in England sets out its long Covid action plan.
The new plan, launched on 28 July 2022, will see patients with long-lasting symptoms having access to more convenient tests and checks closer to home, according to NHS England.
Specialist long Covid clinics will also now be able to send people for tests at local one stop shops and mobile clinics, instead of going to their GP practice, it added.
Nurse leaders have welcomed the new plans but warned that nursing staff are disproportionately affected by long Covid and therefore need the right support.
“This is another blow for some struggling with Covid-19-related health issues”
Royal College of Nursing England director Patricia Marquis said: “We know many of our members are suffering from long Covid, with their lives adversely affected making them unable to work.
“Facing the threat of losing full sick pay should they remain off sick from a condition some could argue is an occupational hazard, is neglectful and unfair.”
She claimed this was another indication of how little the government values its nursing staff.
“NHS pay is barely enough to make ends meet at the best of times, and this is another blow for some struggling with Covid-19-related health issues,” she added.
LCNMUK also welcomed the plans and is pleased that the guidance incorporates referral at four weeks after an acute Covid-19 infection, as well as triaging by health professionals with experience in post-covid medicine.
However, the group said it would have liked to have seen a recommendation for long Covid training to be expanded to include all healthcare professionals, as some patients are still being told by some staff members that long Covid is all in their mind.
A government spokesperson within the Department of Health and Social Care in England said: “We hugely value and appreciate the dedication and contribution of all NHS staff who have worked tirelessly throughout the pandemic.
“At the start of the pandemic when we knew little about the virus, we introduced temporary non-contractual sickness guidance to help employers stop the spread of the virus.
“We have since published the Living With Covid plan which sets out how we are managing the virus, and this temporary guidance has been withdrawn.”
“Staff will return to the normal contractual terms and conditions sickness arrangements for NHS staff, meaning depending on length of service, they are entitled to full sick pay for up to six months, and up to a further six months of half pay.”
A Welsh government spokesperson said: “NHS Wales and trade unions agreed the arrangements for Covid sickness absence from 1 July to support the transition back to existing national terms and conditions for all absences.
“Organisations can look at individual circumstances on a case-by-case basis and apply different pay arrangements.”
When approached for comment the Scottish Government pointed towards the latest changes and said that sick pay entitlements depend on length of service.