‘Long covid’ is the term given to the condition where people who have already had Covid-19 continue to experience symptoms of the illness, often subsequently testing negative to the presence of the virus.
Having residual symptoms of viral infections is not unusual, for example, having a cough many weeks after a cold. However, long covid is characterised by significant symptoms, such as extreme fatigue and/or shortness of breath, leading to exhaustion after even minor activity, for a considerable period after the initial infection.
Although those who have been treated in hospital are more likely to experience long covid issues, many who experienced mild initial symptoms are also struggling with the condition. It has been estimated that 2% of all people infected have long covid symptoms 90 days after the initial onset of their symptoms.
There is growing evidence that long covid is more likely to occur in individuals who try to ‘soldier on’ and do not take the time to rest and recover. Members should ensure that where they are diagnosed with Covid-19, they take the necessary period of sick leave rather than attempt to work through the illness.
Long covid symptoms include:
- shortness of breath;
- joint pain;
- chest pain;
- loss of taste/smell.
These can be debilitating and have a significant effect on an individual’s ability to perform day-to-day tasks. The symptoms can also vary on a day-to-day basis.
This is a new disorder and the impacts and effects are still largely unknown, but it is clear that long covid exists.
It should be noted that current Public Health England advice is that unless a fever persists, people can emerge from self-isolation after ten days.
Is long covid a disability?
The Equality Act 2010 introduced a Public Sector Equality Duty (PSED) on public authorities in England, Scotland and Wales to have due regard to the following in the exercise of their functions:
- eliminate unlawful discrimination, harassment and victimisation and other conduct prohibited by the Act;
- advance equality of opportunity between people who share a protected characteristic and those who do not;
- foster good relations between people who share a protected characteristic and those who do not.
Covid-19 in itself is not a condition considered to be a disability under equalities legislation. However, someone with long-term symptoms of the virus may be protected under the Equality Act, as disability is one of the protected characteristics covered by this legislation.
Employers must have due regard to the need to remove or minimise any disadvantages suffered by people due to their protected characteristics, including disabled workers.
The definition of a disability under the Equality Act 2010 is a physical or mental impairment that has a ‘substantial’ and ‘long-term’ negative effect on a person’s ability to perform normal daily activities. ‘Substantial’ is more than minor or trivial, e.g. it takes much longer than it usually would to complete a daily task like getting dressed, whilst ‘long-term’ means 12 months or more, e.g. a breathing condition that develops as a result of a lung infection. The condition does not have to have lasted for 12 months, but could reasonably be expected to do so.
With long covid, the first test will be met in many cases. The second test is more difficult to determine – the condition has not existed long enough to know whether it will last longer than 12 months. However, the NASUWT position is that if an individual is not experiencing an improvement after a period of time, it would be reasonable to assume the condition is long term and therefore should be counted as a disability.
Employers have a responsibility in law to make reasonable adjustments for disabled people and this may include allowing someone to work from home or take time off with no detriment to their pay.
What should employers do?
The NASUWT would expect employers to take a sympathetic approach to employees suffering from long covid, particularly where this leaves them unable to work. Sick pay should apply as normal and an occupational health assessment should be undertaken in order to ascertain whether any reasonable adjustments can be applied to assist a return to work. Employers will further need to risk assess any return to the workplace to ensure that it is safe for the individual.
As with any long-term illness, members must not be discriminated against due to suffering from long covid and any absence procedures enacted must be applied fairly and consistently. Employers dismissing the condition as ‘not real’ or ‘in someone’s head’ is unacceptable and members experiencing this reaction should contact the NASUWT for assistance.
Teachers may have contractual sick pay enhancements in circumstances where an infectious disease is contracted in the workplace, but given the difficulties in establishing where infection occurs, this is unlikely to apply in instances of long covid, especially as it usually requires a doctor to certify that infection occurred within the school.
What should members do?
Any member who thinks they may be suffering from long covid should seek medical advice from their GP in the first instance.
If your condition is severe enough to qualify as substantial, although there is no requirement to inform your employer, particularly if you are attending the workplace, the NASUWT advises that you declare it in order to obtain protection from discrimination and so that your employer is required to consider reasonable adjustments to assist your attendance.
If you are not at work, your employer should be keeping in touch with you, but not pressurising you to return or send in work. An occupational health assessment may be useful and you should consider requesting one.
If your employer has commenced action against you, under their absence management procedure, you should request a copy of the procedure/policy if you have not already been given one and contact the NASUWT for further advice and guidance.
Any members experiencing difficulty with their employer due to long covid should contact the NASUWT for further assistance.