NHS England has amended guidance that suggested NHS employers could consider dismissing staff with long COVID who have been on sick leave for longer than 12 months.
In guidance published on 1 February 2022, NHS England advised employers to review staff with long COVID “if a colleague is approaching long term sickness (for a period of 12 months or more)… to understand the ongoing need and potential challenges with a return to work”.
“Consideration of dismissal due to the colleague being unable to fulfil their contract should only be considered if redeployment is not an option,” the guidelines added.
At the time, the guidance was met with backlash from campaign groups for healthcare workers who have long COVID.
NHS England later updated the guidelines on 21 February 2022 to remove the paragraph that advised a review of staff with long COVID and suggested consideration of dismissal.
Under the current guidance, employers are asked to “support colleagues with long-term COVID-19 sickness absences” and noted that “all NHS organisations have the ability to be flexible in how sickness absence is treated”.
The guidance also suggests supporting staff who are seeking early retirement as a result of long-COVID, where “they have expressed that they are considering” this as an option.
Previous wording of the document advised “supporting colleagues into early retirement”, adding that if a staff member with long COVID “feels unable to fulfil their role due to their symptoms, consideration of early retirement due to long COVID should be treated the same way that an early retirement request due to any other illness would be considered”.
Paul Day, director of the Pharmacists’ Defence Association (PDA), said the change to a previously “inappropriate and penalising HR practice” was welcome.
“There were all sorts of issues with the approach that had been proposed, including that if a condition such as long COVID was preventing an individual for working for 12 months, it would almost certainly then be classified as disability under the terms of the Equality Act 2010.
“To be then dismissing people, only because they are disabled, would potentially be a discriminatory act and would be even more unjust if the individual had developed that disability as a direct result of risking their own wellbeing as part of the NHS response to a deadly pandemic,” he said.
“Any health professional faced with a potential employment review due to sickness absence, should contact their trade union for support.”
According to the latest estimates from the Office for National Statistics (ONS), published on 7 April 2022, 3.8% of healthcare staff have self-reported long COVID in the UK based on a sample size of 22,148 people employed in the health care sector.
Overall, the ONS estimates that 1.7 million people have self-reported long COVID.
NHS England did not respond to questions from The Pharmaceutical Journal on why it removed this part of the guidance.