Doctors and other healthcare professionals have higher levels of long COVID than the general population but are being denied adequate support, the British Medical Association (BMA) said.
It warned that some doctors who are currently signed off sick because of debilitating symptoms may struggle financially when enhanced sick pay for COVID ends in two weeks' time.
It called for the Government to keep payments in place until long-term solutions are implemented.
"For those unable to return to work at all, many are worried about how they will continue to pay their mortgage, or if they can afford to even feed their families," said Prof Philip Banfield, the Association's chair of council.
Higher Long COVID Rates Among Health and Social Care Workers
A new report, Addressing the health challenge of long COVID, said that in July an estimated 1.8 million people in the UK, or 2.8% of the population, were experiencing self-reported symptoms of the condition, at least 4 weeks after having COVID-19. Of those, 81% had, or thought they had, COVID 12 weeks previously, whilst 43% said it had been more than a year earlier.
The Office for National Statistics reported in August, among people living in private households with self-reported long COVID and who believed they had been infected with SARS-CoV-2 at least 12 weeks previously, 3.19% were healthcare workers and 4.22% worked in social care, compared with 2.24% of all those surveyed who worked in other sectors.
The BMA said its own survey of members who currently or previously had long COVID found that 20% had to take sick leave and 10% had to work reduced hours or reduce their responsibilities. It also cited a 2021 survey in the journal Occupational Medicine involving 138 healthcare workers in the North West of England, which found that 32% of those who contracted COVID-19 during the first wave were still struggling to cope with persistent symptoms 3 to 4 months after the peak of the first wave.
More recently, a BMA poll of doctors in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland in February found that 7.2% of doctors who responded in February were experiencing symptoms of COVID-19 that had lasted longer than 12 weeks, with another 5.3% saying they had previously experienced long-lasting symptoms but had since recovered.
Prof Banfield said: "During the pandemic, the NHS introduced COVID-19 pay provisions across the UK to ensure that staff off sick with COVID received full pay. In two weeks' time, Governments in England and Scotland will end enhanced sick pay. With normal contractual sick pay arrangements back in place, staff with long COVID might feel pressured to return to work before they have fully recovered."
Doctors' leaders say that taken against a backdrop of increasing high street prices and soaring energy costs, curtailing enhanced sick pay arrangements will come as "a slap in the face for those staff who put themselves at risk during the pandemic and who are now experiencing often debilitating symptoms, varying from extreme tiredness to heart palpitations". They are also concerned that prolonged absences from work will again be subject to scrutiny by human resources departments, unless long COVID is recognised as an occupational disease.
Prof Banfield said: "Putting staff in this position is totally unacceptable, which is why we urgently need proper support for staff, and a compensation scheme for those who need it." Without such arrangements, healthcare workers could leave the profession, "further exacerbating the workforce crisis in the NHS", the BMA suggested.
The report by the doctors' union called for 7 steps to tackle the burden of long COVID:
- Detailed data collection on the prevalence and presentation of long COVID
- Increased funding for research and infrastructure
- Preventing long COVID in children
- Support for health professionals to identify and treat the condition
- Funding and resources to establish multidisciplinary services
- Improved financial and wider support for people unable to work due to long COVID
- Improved support and compensation scheme for doctors and healthcare workers who have long COVID
Dr David Strain, the BMA's board of science chair, said: "If we don't tackle increasing staff absences, serious harm will be done to the health service, which is already dangerously understaffed. The NHS is the people who work in it and looking after them is central to it functioning properly."
And Layla Moran MP, chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Coronavirus commented: "To abandon healthcare workers who have already sacrificed so much across the course of this pandemic is morally indefensible."
The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) confirmed that all staff in receipt of COVID sick pay by will revert to their contractual terms and conditions by September 1, 2022. A spokesperson said: "Since the start of the pandemic, we have delivered over 21.4 billion items of PPE to frontline health and care staff, reflecting the huge efforts made to protect them in their vital work to combat this dreadful disease. As a nation, we remain in their debt.
"As we are living with COVID, the temporary non-contractual guidance that was put in place at the height of the pandemic has been withdrawn, and staff who are on COVID sickness pay will move back to the normal arrangements.
"This provides generous support for NHS staff with up to six months full pay and six months half pay, depending on length of service."
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