As many as 10,000 NHS staff could be off work with long Covid across the UK, according to an investigation by BBC Panorama, as concerns about incoming changes to sick pay escalate.
The estimate has led to renewed calls for better support for nurses and colleagues with long Covid and for the condition to be treated as an occupational disease.
“Any nursing staff affected must be able to recover with time off, sick pay, access to the specialist services they need”
Rates of long Covid among health workers are believed to be higher than the general population. But despite calls from nursing unions for comprehensive data collection on the number of nurses off sick with the condition across the UK, exact figures are still not known.
The BBC Panorama episode Forgotten Heroes of the Covid Front Line looked at data from Scotland and Northern Ireland, where the number of NHS staff off sick with long Covid is recorded.
These datasets were then used to estimate the total number of UK healthcare staff absent from work with the condition.
According to the programme, which aired on Monday, some 0.6% of healthcare staff in Northern Ireland are absent from work because of long Covid, while in Scotland the figure was 0.3%.
By extrapolating these figures to the rest of the UK, the programme estimated that between 5,000 and 10,000 healthcare staff across the UK were currently off work because of long Covid.
The programme also highlighted the position of many healthcare staff who continue to suffer effects from long Covid, but whose sick pay may soon run out.
Prior to July last year, nurses and other NHS staff in England were eligible to receive full pay for Covid-19 related absence for the entire time they were off work, regardless of their length of service.
This arrangement was brought to an end in July 2022, leaving nurses taking time off for Covid-19 eligible for standard sick pay.
Under these terms, 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.
Featured in the programme was a nurse in Devon, Rachel Hext, who told BBC Panorama she had been diagnosed with long Covid and had been unable to work for more than two years.
Having contracted Covid-19 in October 2020, Ms Hext said her long Covid symptoms include chest pain, brain fog, fatigue, joint pain, allergies, heart problems, sinus issues and hearing loss.
She described being called one morning during the second Covid-19 wave and informed that her hospital ward had been changed into a “Covid contact ward” and that she should “bring some spare clothes with [her] because there wasn’t enough scrubs to go around”.
Ms Hext said work at that time was “absolute chaos” and that she did not feel safe.
She said she did not have proper personal protective equipment (PPE) or scrubs to fit appropriately.
“By the time you’d looped your surgical mask round your ears I had massive gaping holes in my cheeks,” she told the programme.
A change in sickness rules will soon mean she will go from receiving full pay, to half of that at the end of February.
She told the programme she was “really worried” about money.
Nursing unions and representatives of nurses with long Covid have been protesting the lack of support for workers with the condition.
And many, including the All Party Parliamentary Group on Coronavirus, have called for long Covid to be recognised as an occupational disease and for frontline workers living with the condition to be given ongoing financial support.
“By the time you’d looped your surgical mask round your ears I had massive gaping holes in my cheeks”
The case for Covid-19 to be considered an industrial disease was strengthened this month when a coroner in Cardiff ruled that the deaths of two nurses, who died as a result of exposure to Covid-19 at work, had died of industrial disease.
Dr Alison Twycross, nursing academic and chair of campaign group Long Covid Nurses and Midwives UK, told Nursing Times that the issues raised in the Panorama programme “ring true” with what she is being told by many NHS staff with long covid.
She said that she was “perplexed” that the Department of Health and Social Care was not collecting data about the number of NHS staff with long Covid in England.
“I can only conclude that doing so enables them to continue to deny the extent of the problem,” she said.
Dr Twycross added that an issue that wasn’t highlighted in the programme was that some NHS staff have already been dismissed on the grounds of ill health capability.
“Not all NHS organisations are giving their staff the maximum six months on full pay and six months on half pay,” she said.
Dr Twycross said that a number of charities were working on the next steps to providing support for all NHS staff with long Covid and urged nurses to sign a petition on Twitter (@KeyWorkerPetUK) calling for a compensation and pension scheme for keyworkers with long Covid.
A public inquiry into the Covid-19 pandemic in the UK has been established, and preliminary hearings including into the pandemic’s impact on healthcare are scheduled to take place in February and March.
Commenting on the issues raised in the episode of Panorama, head of health, safety and wellbeing, and employment relations at the Royal College of Nursing, Leona Cameron, said: “Nursing staff provided outstanding care during the pandemic in extremely difficult circumstances and were badly let down by the government which provided them with inadequate PPE, poor access to testing and guidance that was constantly changing and confusing. Some even lost their lives.
“We are committed to supporting people who are experiencing the long-term effects of this virus”
“These and many other issues must be addressed by the public inquiry into the pandemic and very important lessons learned.”
She added: “Sadly, many are now being let down again as they deal with the impact of long Covid, a condition whose long-term impact is still not fully understood.
“Any nursing staff affected must be able to recover with time off, sick pay, access to the specialist services they need and a supportive return to work.
“In addition, long Covid must be recognised and treated as an occupational disease by health and social care employers.”
Ms Cameron added that the RCN provides support to members who find themselves subject to disciplinary procedures or other formal procedures, or facing the threat of dismissal, following time off due to Covid-19.
A government spokesperson said: “We are committed to supporting people who are experiencing the long-term effects of this virus, including providing a strong financial safety net for those in need.
“There are also efforts underway to help those with long Covid stay in work and support their health.
“In total, we have invested £314 million to establish specialist services throughout England to direct people experiencing long Covid into the right treatment and rehabilitation services, including occupational health services.”