Frontline health workers to be left without income support in coming weeks
Officials from the Department of Social Protection have admitted they are still engaged in a “back & forth with colleagues in health, teasing out issues” with regard to the designation of long COVID as an occupational illness. This is despite the fact that frontline healthcare workers suffering with the condition, who contracted COVID prior to 15th November 2021, will have their income supports stopped by June next, according to Denis Naughten TD.
“It seems really bizarre that despite many frontline healthcare workers suffering with conditions associated with long COVID as a result of providing vital medical care to patients at the height of the pandemic, the Department of Health is only ‘teasing out issues’ on occupational illness supports now,” stated Denis Naughten.
“The Department of Social Protection has been considering a scheme to support frontline workers suffering with conditions associated with long COVID since last November, and yet the one Department that would benefit most from such a scheme, the Department of Health, does not seem to be dealing with the issue with the urgency it requires.
“In a few short weeks frontline healthcare workers who put their lives at risk to care for patients during the height of the pandemic, without proper protective PPE clothing, and who are out of work with conditions associated with long COVID are facing an income cliff-edge as their HSE funded paid leave will cease.”
At present, only healthcare workers who were out sick with long COVID conditions prior to 15 November 2021, which was before the Omicron variant was detected, are able to avail of this paid leave, with all other frontline workers excluded from any specific supports. Even those workers in receipt of special long COVID supports will see this cease in June this year if they have not made a full recovery allowing them to return to work.
Denis Naughten added: “Earlier this month, I published new polling data indicating that 10% of adults have experienced symptoms of long COVID following an initial period of infection with the virus. The poll, which I commissioned by Ireland Thinks, shows that 12% of women reported having experienced long COVID symptoms, compared with 7% of men. Of this group, 17% reported that their ability to conduct daily activities had been ‘severely affected’ as a result of their symptoms.
“This 10% self-reported incidence of long COVID is up from 6% just 4 months ago and clearly shows this is a growing problem that could also be associated with ongoing milder COVID-19 infections,” concluded Denis Naughten.
Nature Review article on long COVID states “Long COVID is associated with all ages and acute phase disease severities, with the highest percentage of diagnoses between the ages of 36 and 50 years, and most long COVID cases are in non-hospitalized patients with a mild acute illness” Link: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41579-022-00846-2#:~:text=Long%20COVID%20(sometimes%20referred%20to,%2DCoV%2D2)%20infection.
Citation: Davis, H.E., McCorkell, L., Vogel, J.M. et al. Long COVID: major findings, mechanisms and recommendations. Nat Rev Microbiol 21, 133–146 (2023). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41579-022-00846-2
Dáil comments on the introduction of an long-COVID occupational illness scheme:
Wednesday, 30 November 2022
Social Welfare Bill 2022: Committee and Remaining Stages
Heather Humphreys (Cavan-Monaghan, Fine Gael)
I thank Deputy Naughten for raising this issue. I will speak, as the Deputy himself has, on the next two amendments together.
I am not prepared to accept the first amendment, and I will explain that shortly, but I am prepared and happy to do a report. My Department is monitoring the work and the recommendations of the European Commission in this regard, and I understand the Commission has published its recommendations on occupational diseases this very week. I can assure the Deputies that my Department and the other Government bodies concerned will give very careful consideration to the Commission recommendation, which I have not seen myself.
The Deputy’s proposed amendment provides for the inclusion in the definition of the medical examination the terms “virological” and “bacteriological”, and I am happy to consider that in the context of the report. The report will require consultation with the stakeholders, the Department of Health and the Health and Safety Authority, following consideration of the EU Commission’s recommendations. I am not averse to arranging for such a report to be conducted and I assure the Deputy I will do that. The Chief Medical Officer of my Department, however, has warned that because Covid-19 was so widespread, adding long Covid as an occupational illness in the Statute Book could be difficult. We are happy to look at it. Conducting a report on this important issue is timely and I will be happy to do that. As part of that report, I will look specifically at the Deputy’s proposal and I am happy to see what we can do at that stage. If we change this legislation now before we do the report, that would, in a manner of speaking, be putting the cart before the horse. As I have said, I am happy to do the report and to take into consideration the Deputy’s proposed amendment. I will talk to the Minister for Health and to the Chief Medical Officer.
Wednesday, 1 February 2023
Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Heather Humphreys (Cavan-Monaghan, Fine Gael)
After 12 months on illness benefit, I understand a person can go to partial capacity benefit and then work unrestricted, so that could in some way facilitate the phased return to work. To give an update on where we are, under the occupational injuries benefit scheme, my Department provides supports to those who contract an occupational disease at work. At the moment, Covid-19 does not constitute a prescribed disease or illness. We know that. The European Commission officially added Covid-19 to its list of recommended occupational illnesses on 28 November. It is up to the individual member state to decide whether to recognise Covid-19 as an occupational disease. Therefore, I have written to the Minister for Health and the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment asking them for their views, which will help to inform the next steps. That is where the matter is at the moment. It will be up to them to decide who goes on this list or to give me a recommendation as to who should be on the occupational injuries benefit scheme.
I am waiting for a response back from both Departments. If the Chairman wants to raise it with them, that would be good.
Wednesday, 8 February 2023
Written Qusetion: Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment
Denis Naughten (Roscommon-Galway, Independent)
- To ask the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment if he has received a request from the Minister for Social Protection to designate long Covid as an occupational illness; the current status of the request; the timeline for responding; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [6066/23]
Neale Richmond (Dublin Rathdown, Fine Gael)
I can confirm that my Departmental colleague, Simon Coveney TD, Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, recently received correspondence from the Minister for Social Protection concerning the communication from the EU Commission about the addition of COVID-19 to the list of reportable occupational diseases.
A reply has issued to the Minister for Social Protection outlining that the implications of this EU Commission communication on the occupational safety and health remit of my Department, and that of the Health and Safety Authority, are minimal. This is primarily because COVID-19 has already been recognised as a biological agent under a 2020 EU Commission Directive (2020/739) (relating specifically to SARS-CoV-2, the causative agent of COVID-19) which came into effect in Irish law through the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work (Biological Agents) (Amendment) Regulations 2020 (S.I. No. 539 of 2020).
In conjunction with the introduction of the Regulations the Health and Safety Authority introduced the 2020 Biological Agents Code of Practice. Under this Code of Practice an employer who becomes aware of a confirmed case of COVID-19 in an employee, as a result of the employee carrying out direct or deliberate work with coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, is required to notify the Health and Safety Authority.
Separately, any decision by the Minister for Social Protection to include COVID-19 in the Occupational Injuries Benefit Scheme will not impact on the existing provisions of occupational safety and health legislation and is a matter for the Minister for Social Protection in the first instance.
Thursday, 23 February 2023
Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí – Leaders’ Questions
Denis Naughten (Roscommon-Galway, Independent)
On 9 November, my colleagues and I in the Regional Group secured the unanimous support of this House for a motion on long Covid seeking immediate action because of the impact it is having on our health service. That includes studies such as the one published in the Irish Medical Journalin June 2021 which found that long Covid had a significant impact on our health system, particularly in terms of increased demand for healthcare services, longer hospital stays and increased healthcare costs. Another study by researchers in Trinity College Dublin, published in The Lancet Respiratory Medicinejournal in September 2021, estimated that up to 11% of individuals infected with Covid-19 in Ireland are likely to experience long Covid which could lead to a significant burden on our healthcare system.
Patients with long Covid, many of whom are young with no underlying health conditions, are presenting to our health services with prolonged, multi-system symptoms that are impacting on their daily lives, affecting their ability to work and causing significant disability for some. Long Covid also has a significant impact on our workforce. It costs millions of euro in lost work and welfare. Data from the Department of Social Protection have shown that 0.8% of those who contracted Covid-19 and claimed the enhanced illness benefit payment were medically certified as being unfit to work 12 weeks later. If this is extrapolated across the total number of people infected with Covid-19 within the adult population, it equates to more than 21,400 people. The welfare data also show that 35% of workers on disability payments as a result of Covid-19 are out of work for at least six months.
Our motion called for the designation of long Covid as an occupational illness for front-line workers who contracted the virus due to their employment. Long Covid being listed as an occupational illness would allow front-line workers to avail of long-term income assistance until they are fit to return to work. At present, only healthcare workers who were out sick prior to 15 November 2021, which was before the Omicron variant was detected, are able to avail of paid leave. This will cease in June this year if they have not made a full recovery which would allow them to return to work. All other front-line workers, including healthcare workers out sick due to long Covid contracted as a result of their work, are now excluded from any support from their employers. The Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Humphreys, has given a commitment to address this issue. She has written to the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Coveney, and the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, looking to move on this issue. The former has responded positively.
She is still awaiting a response from the latter. Will the Tánaiste intervene, ensure the response is forthcoming and address this issue?
Micheál Martin (Leader of the Opposition; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
I thank the Deputy. In the context of his recent announcement, I wish him the very best, although he very quickly said to me in the corridor that it would not spare him from harassing me, politically speaking, for the next while. He will be as robust as ever.
I acknowledge the Deputy’s long-standing and consistent support of the long Covid issue. Very few Deputies have put as much work as he has into endeavouring to understand the prevalence of long Covid across the population and the consequences for individuals and families. I appreciate that. He has argued on the health side for quite some time. The Minister for Health is primarily responsible for developing a national strategy and service for long Covid. Some €2.2 million was allocated for service development last year. The figure for 2023 is €6.6 million. That will ensure the provision of post-acute and long Covid clinics operating within each hospital group to ensure there is a national service. Post-acute clinics are managing patients between four and 12 weeks after the initial onset of infection. Long Covid clinics are managing patients 12 weeks post the onset of infection. The Deputy knows the list of hospitals involved.
It is important that we work on the research side and endeavour to get a proper handle on the longer term implications. The Deputy focused on occupational illness today. He has had good responses from the Ministers, Deputies Humphreys and Coveney. He knows the way Government works. This is an issue we will examine. Fundamentally, we will come to the Estimates and have collective responsibility. It will be an issue we have to examine collectively with the Ministers for Public Expenditure, National Development Plan Delivery and Reform and Finance. The Deputy has made a reasonable case. I appreciate that and we will work across government to address this aspect of the long Covid issue.
We have made significant progress on the health side in terms of the provision of a wide range of facilities, including a tertiary neurocognitive clinic in St. James’s Hospital, led by a consultant neurologist. There will be many multidimensional aspects to the long Covid issue we will have to deal with over the longer time. On the income and occupational illness side, the Deputy has identified an issue we have to come back to him on. We are examining it within Government.
Thursday, 23 March 2023
Written Answer Department of Health
Social Welfare Eligibility
Denis Naughten (Roscommon-Galway, Independent)
- To ask the Minister for Health further to Parliamentary Question No. 454 of 8 March 2023, if he has responded to a request from the Minister for Social Protection to designate long-Covid as an occupational illness; the current status of the request; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [14529/23]
Stephen Donnelly (Wicklow, Fianna Fail)
There has been a delay in responding as officials required time to engage with relevant bodies, to explore available options. I will be responding this week and confirming to Minister for Social Protection that the Department of Health officials will liaise with relevant parties to support our Health Care Workers.