Scrapping special Covid leave for NHS staff is “completely unacceptable” and will put patients and healthcare workers at significant risk, the British Medical Association has warned.
From 7 July the government plans to withdraw the special paid leave for Covid-related sickness and isolation for NHS staff in England, meaning they will revert to normal contractual sick pay arrangements.
Periods of absence due to Covid are fully paid for all NHS workers at the moment, regardless of their length of service.
Prof Raymond Agius, co-chair of the BMA’s occupational medicine committee, said the decision to end it “is completely unacceptable and will put patients and healthcare workers at significant risk”.
“NHS staff rely on this special Covid leave so that they can effectively recuperate and return to work safely,” he said.
“Removing this support is unsafe for patient care and pressuring people to return to work, which ultimately this will do, is appalling and demonstrates once again that the government doesn’t care about the health and wellbeing of NHS staff.”
He added that it will not only force many staff to continue working if symptomatic but may have a “significant impact” on their livelihoods if they develop long Covid.
“At a time when we are seeing rapidly rising infection rates across the country, the risk to staff remains very high,” Agius said. “Yet the government has removed many of the routine protections within healthcare environments and are not offering adequate protection and support to doctors.”
The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) also criticised the move.
Patricia Marquis, RCN England director, said: “We know many of our members are suffering from long Covid, with their lives adversely affected, making them unable to work.
“Facing the threat of losing full sick pay should they remain off sick from a condition some could argue is an occupational hazard, is neglectful and unfair. It’s another indication of how little the UK government values its nursing staff.”
Agius has called for a “long-term strategy” for dealing with Covid that is “underpinned by adequate research, data collection and long-term investment” which must include “improved financial and wider support for those unable to work due to long Covid”.
The BMA said it supports calls by the all-party parliamentary group for coronavirus for a compensation scheme for frontline workers.
The latest figures from the Office for National Statistics show an estimated 2.3 million people in the UK – or one in 30 – have the virus, a rise of 32% on the week before.
This increase is being driven by two new fast-spreading subvariants of Omicron called BA.4 and BA.5.
A spokesperson for the Department of Health and Social Care said: “As we learn to live with Covid, we are withdrawing the temporary NHS staff sickness guidance that was put in place at the height of the pandemic, as part of plans to move back to the normal arrangements set out in the NHS terms and conditions.
“This provides generous support for NHS staff with up to six months full pay and six months half-pay, depending on length of service.”