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Thursday 30 November 2023 Dublin: 3°C
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long covid

'I have brain fog, fatigue, migraines': Nurses with Long Covid decry plan to end special leave

Healthcare workers have been receiving letters from their employer informing them that their special leave with pay will cease on 1 July.

UNIONS HAVE CALLED on the Minster for Health to extend the Covid Special Leave with Pay (SLWP) scheme to ensure frontline workers suffering with Long Covid symptoms continue to be supported.

From 1 July, the SLWP scheme will remain in place for new cases of Covid-19, but only for the length of their self-isolation. Frontline workers who have been out sick for months due to infections they picked up at work will be cut off from the scheme.

The National Joint Council of ICTU Healthcare Unions said healthcare workers have been receiving letters from their employer informing them that their special leave with pay will cease on 1 July.

Unions said this moves comes despite public assurances from Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly at the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation Conference that no healthcare worker would face a financial cliff edge at the end of June.

One nurse who spoke to The Journal said her symptoms have improved since she first caught Covid in April 2020 while working in a Covid ward, but she is “still living a shadow of my previous life”.

“I have brain fog, fatigue, migraines, tinnitus, muscle aches, palpitations,” she said. “I just have no spontaneity in life, if I plan something I have to be mindful of not using up my energy in the days beforehand.

“I’m so young and to not be able to do simple things like plan to meet a friend for a drink is so disheartening. I used to be fit and healthy, running 5k and doing long shifts running around all day, now I can manage gentle yoga and an easy walk but that’s it.”

She said if her access to the scheme ceases at the end of this week she will have to rely on her general sick leave of 24 weeks over four years.

“If I use up those 24 weeks I’m snookered for the next four years,” she said. “I’d have no sick leave if I got the vomiting bug in the hospital in a year’s time so I wouldn’t be paid for the days out.”

Another nurse who got Covid during the 2021 winter wave said her life has been “massively impacted” over the last 16 months.

“I have a wide range of symptoms, that includes tachycardia, shortness of breath, fatigue which is absolutely crippling, brain fog, nerve pain, joint pain, muscle pain,” she said.

“A 15 minute walk is about the most I can manage, if I go to Tesco I need to lie down when I get home, if I go for a shower I need to lie down afterwards, I just have to plan every day out so that I don’t overdo it.”

She said when frontline workers with Long Covid heard the news that the special leave payment would cease it “broke all of us”.

“I couldn’t go back to work now, I would have been a super organised person before but with the brain fog now I have post-its everywhere to remind me of things, if I put on the oven I have to set a timer so I don’t forget there’s something in there,” she said. “I wouldn’t trust myself around patients at the moment.”

The nurse said she had heard some government ministers speaking about the Critical Illness Protocol as a potential alternative for frontline workers with Long Covid.

The protocol provides the basis for access to six months on full pay and six months on half pay in a four-year rolling period in the event that a staff member is diagnosed with a critical illness or serious physical injury.

However she said because Long Covid is a relatively new illness, there is no guarantee that this scheme would cover her.

“I just think they should look after us, I don’t think we should have to use that or regular sick pay for an illness we have because of work,” she said.

“It’s bad enough dealing with this horrible illness but now I’m worrying about paying the mortgage when this runs out, I try not to worry but it’s at the forefront of my mind all the time.”

Workplace Relations Commission

Today Chairperson of the National Joint Council of HSE Staff Trade Unions, Tony Fitzpatrick said the HSE had failed to attend a hearing of the Workplace Relations Commission to discuss the issue yesterday.

“These health care workers attended work to care for patients, at a time when other workers, public and private were being told to stay at home. Healthcare workers were classified as essential for attendance at work,” he said.

“The number of public healthcare workers on this scheme make up 0.2% of the entire healthcare workforce. These workers must have financial and professional stability as promised by the Minister.

“It is unacceptable to us as a group of unions representing healthcare workers that the Special Leave with Pay scheme will now cease, and these workers will face a financial cliff edge.

This is the opposite of what the Minister for Health promised wouldn’t happen. It is infuriating and extremely disappointing that the Minister has not followed through on his commitment and ensured that the Department of Health and the HSE engage with the unions in relation to this matter. The WRC offered to facilitate talks yesterday but the HSE refused to attend.

Fitzpatrick said staff suffering with after-effects of Covid should not now be penalised for not being able to return to work.

“Healthcare workers who find themselves still suffering from Long Covid should be protected from financial loss due to an injury sustained at work,” he said. “These workers stepped up when the State needed them, the State should step up and continue to protect these workers.”

‘Temporary measure’

In a statement to The Journal, the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform said SLWP for Covid-19 was a temporary measure in response to the unprecedented circumstances presented by the pandemic.

It said if employees remain unwell beyond the seven-day isolation period they can avail of the Public Service sick leave scheme. 

“It is important to note that we have standardised paid sick leave provisions across the Public Service,” the department said.

“All illnesses are treated equally under the Public Service Sick Leave Regulations, including those that are critical. There are also occupational health supports in place in each of the sectors for employees who are absent on sick leave. ”

The department also made reference to the Critical Illness Protocol and Temporary Rehabilitation Remuneration, which may be granted to public servants who have exhausted their sick leave, where there is a reasonable prospect of recovery and return to work. 

“Special Leave with Pay for Covid-19 is not intended to replace sick leave in the public service, nor was it designed to address long Covid,” it said.

“Additionally, it is out of scope for Special Leave with Pay to address causation. The issue of where someone may or may not have contracted Covid-19 would need to be addressed on a sector by sector basis.”

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