Supports for Healthcare Workers with Long Covid

Mon, May 29, 2023

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Neasa questioning the Minister for Social Protection about the support for healthcare workers experiencing long Covid as a result of their work.


Neasa Hourigan TD: Will the Minister outline the Department’s plans to provide support for healthcare workers experiencing long Covid as a result of their service? What are the Minister’s plans to provide a recognition of long Covid under the Social Welfare Consolidation Act 2005? Can I have a statement on the matter?

Minister Heather Humphreys: Section 87 of the Social Welfare Consolidation Act 2005 legislates for the occupational injuries benefit scheme for persons injured by an accident at work or caused by a prescribed disease due to the nature of their employment. The occupational injuries benefit scheme is a compensation and income support provided by my Department and, as Minister, I have the power to prescribe diseases under the scheme.

Covid-19 is not currently a prescribed disease or illness. Section 87(2) of the Act states that a disease or injury shall be prescribed for the purposes of this section in relation to any insured persons, where the Minister is satisfied that it ought to be treated, having regard to its causes and any other relevant considerations, as a risk of their occupations and not as a risk common to all persons.

In addition, the disease should be such that, in the absence of special circumstances, the attribution of particular cases to the nature of the employment can be established or presumed with reasonable certainty.

My Department is aware of the recommendation of the European Commission regarding Covid-19. The decision on whether to recognise an illness as an occupational illness is a member state competence and, in this regard, it should be noted that the European Commission has not made a recommendation about recognising long Covid as an occupational disease. Most member states have not recognised long Covid. The UK Department for Work and Pensions presented a report to the UK Parliament in November 2022, which concluded that long Covid should not be considered an occupational disease due to the lack of evidence and the evolving nature of the illness. However, I have consulted with other relevant Departments and Ministers on the matter and the responses received are currently under consideration. I trust this clarifies the matter for the Deputy.

Neasa Hourigan TD: I thank the Minister. I am glad she brought up the principles of the Social Welfare Consolidation Act 2005 because I argue that the people we sent into our hospitals - I do not just mean nurses and doctors but healthcare assistants, cleaners, and housekeeping and catering staff - were not able to shelter in place. They were not able to stay at home and mind themselves like the rest of us. They had to go to work. Not only that, they often had to go to work with personal protective equipment that was less than appropriate. Although that was not just due to a failing of the State but because Covid was a pandemic, and we all understand there were difficulties, it is very hard to argue that people who are experiencing this post-viral condition did not contract it in the course of being continuously subjected to exposure to Covid-19 in their workplace in a way the rest of us were not.

I raised this issue earlier in the year, when I brought those principles to the attention of the Minister and the Minister of State. I highlighted that the EU Advisory Committee on Health and Safety at Work has recommended recognition of long Covid. At the time, I was told the Department would take that away and review it, in addition to consulting with the Minister for Health. Where are we with that?

Colm Burke TD: I would like to support my colleague on this matter. There was huge commitment and dedication by medical staff throughout the Covid period. There were there to do the best possible job for people who had Covid or other medical care requirements. People contracted it as a result of their commitment. We cannot ignore that some people have long Covid. They contracted it in their place of work and that should be given recognition. Serious consideration should be given to providing for them, particularly while they continue to receive medical care.

Minister Heather Humphreys: I have consulted with the two relevant Ministers on this matter, namely, the Ministers for Health and Enterprise, Trade and Employment. We have received a response from both Ministers. My officials are currently considering those responses. I will meet with the Ministers in due course to discuss the issue further with them. Social welfare is only a small part of this. It is a cross-Government issue that will require further work and consideration. The response to the pandemic was whole-of-government. This issue will have to be dealt with in the same way. Ultimately, it will require a decision of the Government. As I said, I plan to meet the Ministers for Health and Enterprise, Trade and Employment very shortly to discuss their views on it.

Neasa Hourigan TD: Ireland has not always had the best history in dealing with post-viral illnesses, recognising them early and giving people supports. I welcome Deputy Colm Burke’s comments. We have seen some countries in the EU recognise long Covid and provide social supports in respect of it. France, Italy, Denmark and Sweden have all accepted that Covid is not going away and, therefore, we will have people with long Covid for many years to come, unfortunately.

I completely accept the idea that an all-of-government response is needed and that we have to decide as a society to support people. On the social protection issue in particular, however, we are often talking about fairly young people as regards this issue. They are people in their 30s and 40s with small children. They might be sick, not forever, but for two, three, four or five years until they get back on their feet and into a place where they can actually work. We do not want to see people with that kind of ambition and ability put into medical early retirement. There might be a better way of going about it.

Minister Heather Humphreys: As the Deputy knows, my Department provides a suite of income supports to those who cannot work due to illness or disability. It is important to note eligibility for these payments is generally not dependent on the type of illness or disability but the extent to which it impairs or restricts their ability to work. However, I am considering whether to include Covid-19 as a prescribed disease under the occupational injuries benefit scheme. As I said, I am consulting with the other two relevant Ministers and a whole-of-government response is the right way forward.

The recommendation from the European Commission concerns Covid-19 and not long Covid. I understand most EU member states and the UK have not recognised long Covid. Having said that, it is up to us to decide what we will do in this country. I will discuss it with my colleagues and, ultimately, it will be a decision of the Government.