Denis Naughten TD will seek Dáil support on Wednesday to designate long COVID as an occupational illness for frontline workers who contracted the virus due to their employment.
Deputy Naughten has tabled an amendment to the Social Welfare Bill which could result in long COVID being listed as an occupational illness, allowing frontline workers to avail of long-term income assistance until they are fit to return to work.
At present only health workers who were out sick prior to 15th November 2021, which was prior to the Omicron variant of SARS‑CoV‑2 being detected, are able to avail of paid leave which will cease in June of 2023 if they have not made a recovery which allows them to return to work.
All other frontline workers, including health workers out sick due to long COVID contracted as a result of their work, are now excluded from any support from their employer.
The same applies for any frontline worker outside of the public service who contracted long COVID as a result of their employment, as they are excluded from the occupational illness scheme.
Across Europe many countries are acknowledging that some people who contracted the SARS‑CoV‑2 virus through their employment, and subsequently developed long COVID, need ongoing financial support including Denmark, Italy, Latvia, and Slovenia as well as countries such as Norway and Israel.
Yet Minister Stephen Donnelly, responding to a healthcare worker, stated: “I am advised by officials from the Department of Social Protection who operate the national Occupational Injuries Benefit Scheme, that Covid-19 does not constitute a prescribed disease or illness as set out in the Social Welfare Consolidation Act 2005 and that they do not intend on revising this position”.
“This is just not good enough,” stated Denis Naughten. “The fact is that while wave after wave of COVID-19 was battering our health service, staff continued to turn up to work and now that they are out sick as a result, the Department of Health and the State are turning their backs on these very workers.
“This response comes after the Dáil unanimously adopted a motion on long COVID earlier this month, which specifically stated that long COVID should be defined as an occupational illness for all front-line workers and also stated that paid leave should be extended to all healthcare workers on leave due to long covid,” concluded Denis Naughten.
Copy of motion passed by Dáil Éireann on 9th November 2022
That Dáil Éireann: acknowledges that:
— the most recent waiting list figures available from the National Treatment Purchase Fund show over 79,000 patients are waiting for an inpatient or day case procedure, and a further 625,000 are awaiting an outpatient appointment;
— the Irish College of General Practitioners has indicated that only one-in-five general practitioner (GP) practices can take on new patients from the General Medical Services Scheme as they are at full capacity, and only one-in-four can take on new private patients as they are unable to employ another GP or replace a retiring GP;
— according to the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation, 10,679 patients who were admitted to hospitals in October spent time on a trolley before securing a bed, which was more than a 25 per cent increase on last October; and
— more than 27,000 people left Ireland’s emergency departments before being seen by a doctor during the three-month period from July to September this year;
— the World Health Organization has defined the post Covid-19 condition, also known as long Covid, as a condition which occurs in individuals with a history of probable or confirmed SARS-CoV-2 infection, usually three months from the onset of Covid-19, with symptoms lasting for at least two months that cannot be explained by an alternative diagnosis;
— while there are some 200 conditions associated with long Covid, common symptoms include profound fatigue, shortness of breath, post exertional malaise, dysautonomia, neurological and cognitive dysfunction, as well as others that have an impact on everyday functioning, with symptoms appearing following initial recovery from an acute Covid-19 episode, or persisting from the initial SARS-CoV-2 infection;
— research highlights the real burden long Covid represents to the Irish population and an already overwhelmed health service, highlighting the importance of finding scientific solutions which can tackle the underlying mechanisms that are causing such diverse and debilitating symptoms;
— while there is a lack of knowledge associated with the management and treatment of long Covid conditions, this is not the first infection-associated chronic illness triggered by a viral infection, with many long Covid patients meeting the diagnostic criteria for myalgic encephalomyelitis and chronic fatigue syndrome;
— the duration of illness can be variable, with some patients who developed long Covid after contracting Covid-19 in the first wave in March-April 2020 having made little or no recovery to date;
— due to the heterogenous nature of long Covid there is currently no one universal diagnosis or treatment, however, medical evidence indicates that symptom management can improve quality of life;
— research published by the Health Protection Surveillance Centre on Irish blood donors indicates that 69 per cent of adults in Ireland have been infected by the virus;
— there are likely to be 336,451 adults nationally who are suffering from or have suffered from medical conditions associated with long Covid, based on an extrapolation of Netherlands-based research published in The Lancet in August 2022 which attributed long Covid symptoms to 12.7 per cent of patients infected with the SARS-CoV-2 virus;
— patients with long Covid, many of whom are young with no underlying conditions, have presented with prolonged multisystem symptoms which can impact quality of life, affect ability to work and cause significant disability for some;
— long Covid is having a significant impact on our labour force, and an Australian study on long Covid indicates that even low rates of Covid-related permanent illness or disability could still lead to a significant future societal burden from the disease;
— some 0.81 per cent of Enhanced Illness Benefit claimants were certified unfit to return to work at least 12 weeks after their initial infection, meeting the emerging scientific criteria for long Covid;
— on a population basis over 21,000 people may be unfit to work due to long Covid, which excludes those who have relapsed after initial recovery from SARS-CoV-2 infection or the tens of thousands more experiencing less severe forms of long Covid who have reduced participation while in employment;
— just 22.5 whole-time equivalents of the 70 health service staff to be appointed by the Health Service Executive (HSE) to work with long and post Covid patients were recruited up to last month, with patients waiting up to 10 months for initial assessment before joining record waiting lists to see other specialists;
— long Covid services do not exist for children;
— the clinic in the Mater Misericordiae University Hospital Dublin treating neurological conditions, such as brain fog associated with long Covid, has been forced to reduce its service due to a lack of funding;
— many Irish patients have been forced to seek costly treatment overseas due to a lack of clear referral and treatment pathways being developed in Ireland; and
— the primary mechanism to prevent long Covid is to minimise the incidence of Covid-19 infection, by ensuring that all practical measures to reduce the transmission of the virus are introduced and maintained in a time appropriate manner, including the provision of Evusheld to those who are immunocompromised or where vaccination is not recommended; and
calls on the Government to:
— address chronic workforce issues within our GP practices, primary care, and acute hospital services;
— fully staff long and post Covid clinics as committed to on foot of the HSE plan of September 2021, which must be updated to reflect the changing skill set required to support the emerging evidence on the treatment of conditions associated with long Covid, such as direct access to neurological clinicians;
— establish a multidisciplinary public health team incorporating patient advocates to review and manage long Covid care within the population;
— establish a dedicated and specialist-led long Covid clinic for children who are without a dedicated centre at present;
— deliver in tandem with, instead of consequential on, the establishment of long and post Covid clinics, fully resourced long Covid services across GP practices and community services to ensure a national service is in place for all who need it;
— ensure that services and supports adapt and expand based on learnings from implementation, emerging evidence in relation to long Covid and current and projected demand for all specialists and services;
— develop a public awareness campaign on what long Covid is, highlighting the risks posed to the entire population, including the young and healthy, and how to minimise the risk by reducing the transmission of the SARS-CoV-2 virus;
— urgently complete an analysis of existing waiting lists to establish the incidence of long Covid and the scale of the challenge facing the heath service;
— establish a long Covid electronic patient register to provide a secure database to store and analyse detailed information in relation to the number of patients presenting to long Covid clinics, the symptoms they are presenting with and their treatment outcomes;
— ensure that all healthcare and frontline workers who are unfit to work due to long Covid are entitled to special leave with the removal of the arbitrary eligibility date of 7th February, 2022, for healthcare workers and further ensure that the current scheme does not abruptly cease in June 2023;
— recognise long Covid as an occupational illness for all healthcare and frontline workers;
— commence an information campaign providing the best available current advice in the management of conditions associated with long Covid and other post viral chronic conditions to GPs, the medical profession and those experiencing long Covid conditions; and
— develop an innovative rehabilitative and recovery programme that is designed to meet the needs of those experiencing long Covid and other post viral chronic conditions, ensuring a return to as full and active a life as possible.