More than 10,000 NHS staff members have been absent from work for 12 weeks or more since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic as a result of illness related to long COVID, The Pharmaceutical Journal can reveal.
Data obtained through responses to Freedom of Information (FOI) requests from 178 NHS trusts in England have revealed for the first time that at least 10,370 staff members were absent from work for at least 12 weeks owing to illness from COVID-19 between 30 January 2020 and 11 March 2022.
A further 1,957 staff members from the trusts that responded still had ongoing absences of 12 weeks or more as of 11 March 2022, attributed to illness from the virus, which would correspond with a diagnosis of ‘post-COVID-19 syndrome’ under National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) guidance.
Trade unions have warned that the absences risk “exacerbating retention problems and pressures on the remaining workforce” if staff are not well supported in their return to work.
However, the true number of NHS staff with long COVID could be higher; 25 trusts confirmed that absences had occurred but declined to disclose the exact number, citing concerns around staff confidentiality. A further 8 trusts were unable to provide the full number of absences between 30 January 2020 and 11 March 2022, but reported 603 absences of 12 weeks or more within more limited time periods.
These data also do not include the number of NHS staff suffering from “ongoing symptomatic COVID-19”, which is defined by NICE as experiencing COVID-19 symptoms for longer than four weeks.
Commenting on The Pharmaceutical Journal’s findings, Danny Mortimer, chief executive of NHS Employers, which represents NHS trusts, said: “[These data are] a clear reminder of the real risk that COVID-19 can continue to have on people’s lives long after the first symptoms.
“As with all long-term illnesses, NHS organisations are doing everything they can to support their staff who experience long COVID [with returning] to their roles.
“This will include holding regular conversations to understand their specific needs and whether any changes should be made to their working arrangements that might support a return to work.”
However, some NHS staff have reported feeling “bullied and punished” as they return to work, Kim Sunley, health and safety lead at the trade union Unison, told The Pharmaceutical Journal.
“Some have returned to work before they’ve fully recovered, fearful they’ll face disciplinary action or even lose their jobs,” she said.
In April 2022, Unison surveyed 1,916 NHS workers with long COVID and found that 46% said their employer was initially supportive, but that this changed as time went on.
This survey also found that nearly one in ten (9%) NHS workers with long COVID had been asked to attend a formal absence hearing, with 2% reportedly being threatened with disciplinary action or with the loss of their jobs.
In February 2022, NHS England published guidance on supporting NHS staff with long COVID that advised employers to review staff if they are “approaching long-term sickness”.
“Consideration of dismissal due to the colleague being unable to fulfil their contract should only be considered if redeployment is not an option,” it added.
However, this guidance was later updated to remove this advice following criticism from trade bodies.
Raymond Agius, co-chair of the British Medical Association (BMA) occupational medicine committee, said the BMA had also “heard accounts of some [NHS staff] who have struggled to secure the adjustments they need to make a successful return to work”.
“This is deeply concerning, and failures to provide appropriate support can lead to staff being lost to the NHS entirely — which is bad for the employee, bad for patients, and bad for the NHS as a whole, exacerbating retention problems and pressures on the remaining workforce.”
The latest NHS Digital data, published on 26 May 2022, revealed that there were 105,855 staff vacancies across the NHS as of March 2022. NHS Confederation warned at the time that these shortages are “seriously undermining efforts to recover from the pandemic”.
Meanwhile, MPs estimated in January 2022 that NHS trusts in England lost nearly 2 million days in staff absences owing to long COVID between March 2020 to September 2021, based on FOI responses from 70 trusts.
NHS England has yet to respond to The Pharmaceutical Journal’s request for comment.
How are NHS trusts recording long COVID-related absences?
Long COVID-related sickness absences are not recorded as such in trusts’ NHS electronic staff records. Instead, NHS England’s ‘Guidelines for supporting our NHS people affected by long COVID’, published in February 2022, asks trusts to record sickness absences related to long COVID in the same way as other COVID-19 sickness absences, if they last for less than 28 days.
“At present, to understand the impact of long COVID on our NHS workforce, NHS England and NHS Improvement will class absence episodes that last 28 days or more as long COVID and those that are not as ‘normal’ COVID-19,” the guidance says.
According to the latest estimates from the Office for National Statistics (ONS), published on 1 June 2022, 4.6% of people working in healthcare across the UK have self-reported long COVID of any duration, while 3.6% first had — or suspected they had — COVID-19 at least 12 weeks previously.
This makes healthcare the sector with the third highest prevalence of the illness after social care (5.4%) and teaching (4.6%).
Across the whole population, the ONS estimates that just 3.1% have self-reported long COVID of any duration.
However, it is unclear how many NHS staff members caught COVID-19 while at work. In May 2022, an investigation by The Pharmaceutical Journal revealed that the Health and Safety Executive failed to investigate numerous reports of occupational exposure to COVID-19 submitted by NHS trusts.