COVID-19 and the Peer Support Service

Information and resources for healthcare professionals who are disabled during the COVID-19 outbreak

The RCN understands that if you are a healthcare professional with an impairment, if you are Neurodiverse and/or if you consider yourself to be disabled that you face additional challenges both in and out of work.

Our Peer Support Service enables members to network to share lived experience of disability and uses that experience to inform policies and guidance. The service supports members at all stages of their careers including students and those who are not currently employed or who have retired. 

As the COVID-19 outbreak progresses you can find RCN position statements and guidance pertaining to COVID-19 and disability here, as well as links to other services and resources that may be useful.

Reasonable adjustments

The legislation that protects disabled workers from discrimination (The Equality Act 2010, the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 Northern Ireland) continues to apply during the COVID-19 outbreak. Furthermore, allowing all staff to access reasonable adjustments at work (whether they meet the legal definition of "disabled" or not) brings many benefits.

If you are a healthcare professional who has (or needs) adjustments at work, or on student placement, then you are still entitled to these during the COVID-19 outbreak, including when you are redeployed. You should not face negative treatment because of your disability/impairment/health issue. 

If you are a line manager or employer of healthcare professionals with impairments then remember the advantages that a diverse workforce with the skills and equipment needed to thrive in their roles bring to their teams and to patients. 

The RCN Peer Support Service's guides on Disability Passports and Removing Disabling Barriers at Work look further at the advantages of a diverse nursing workforce.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission has produced advice for employers during COVID-19.

RCN Members can access support and advice on employment issues including discrimination by contacting RCN Direct

You can see the RCN's full list of COVID-19 FAQs here, but below are some popular FAQs and links that refer specifically to disability issues.

Many health care professionals have impairments that could mean standard issue PPE is not effective. These include but are not limited to:

  • sensory impairments 
  • use of prosthesis 
  • the use of mobility aids.

For some, PPE is a disabling barrier, for example, employees who communicate well through the ability to lip read will have this communication route disrupted if colleagues are wearing face masks. 

Where there is a change in PPE requirements such as in response to a pandemic, new issues can arise for health care professionals who have not previously been disabled at work. It is essential that processes allow the opportunity for employees to discuss their specific needs regarding PPE and that they are supported by managers in this process.

The Equality Act 2010 (and in Northern Ireland the Disability Discrimination Act 1995) states that employers have a duty to make reasonable adjustments for employees who meet the definition of disabled. This applies to PPE equipment and the processes around administering PPE. The RCN believes that reasonable adjustments should be granted whether this definition is met or not, on the grounds that reasonable adjustments help us to work to the best of our abilities. 

The RCN expects that all employers support their staff to make known their needs in respect of PPE.

Your employer should work with you to ensure that any risk of PPE affecting your impairment and ability to continue in your role is recognised and processes put in place to mitigate the risk. This may mean adjusting processes around donning and doffing of PPE, exploring options for adapted PPE and/or opportunities to fit PPE, and be confident that it is fit for purpose prior to use in a clinical setting.

The RCN expects that line managers undertake a workplace risk assessment and refer to Occupational Health for further advice if appropriate. Where adjustments cannot be made, temporary redeployment to work that does not require PPE should be considered.

Our publications Removing disabling barriers at work and Disability Passports cover the benefits of a diverse workforce including those with impairments and the reasonable adjustments process 

The Health and Safety Executive also provides guidance for employers and employees on reasonable adjustments

Raising concerns

If you feel you are not being supported or that your concerns are not heard, please see our section on  raising concerns about PPE. Support is also available from the RCN Peer Support Service

The Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme is a temporary government scheme to support employers whose operations have been severely affected by coronavirus (COVID-19). This scheme has now been extended until the end of September 2021 and may be used by employees anywhere in the UK, including those who have not previously been furloughed.

The government expects that the scheme will not be used by many public sector organisations, as most should continue to provide essential public services. This means the scheme may not be relevant to members working in the NHS, but some members working for independent employers or those working via an employment agency may benefit from the scheme.

The scheme allows employers to ‘furlough’ employees (place them on a leave of absence) and then claim for 80% of the employees’ usual monthly wage costs, up to £2,500 a month. From 1 July 2021 the amount your employer can claim will be reduced. 

If you are furloughed then you remain an employee and remain entitled to all your normal employment rights, for example annual leave or maternity pay.

How do I apply for the scheme?

Employees and workers do not have an automatic right to be furloughed - it remains a decision for employers and agencies to take whether to furlough staff based on the needs of their business. Employees can be furloughed more than once under the scheme, and there is no requirement to have been furloughed previously in order to make use of the scheme. Each time you are furloughed you and your employer need to agree it in writing (an email exchange may be enough to count as this written agreement). If you think you would benefit from being furloughed then in the first instance you should speak to your manager about the scheme, details of which can be found on the government website.

Does furlough apply in Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland?

Extensions to the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme have coincided with lockdowns in England, however the scheme applies across the whole of the UK. This means that if you live outside of England and believe that the scheme may be of benefit to you in your workplace you can still ask your employer whether they would consider furloughing you, regardless of the current level of restrictions where you live and work..

What is 'part time furlough'?

If you are furloughed under the scheme, your employer now has the option to place you on furlough for only part of your working week and to ask you to work the remainder of your working hours. For this to happen you and your employer would need to agree which days/hours you will be at work and which will count as furlough. If you agree to this then you will be expected to work as normal for the hours you are not furloughed (and will receive full pay for those hours) and will be paid through the furlough scheme for the remainder of your working time. It is important that if you are on part time furlough that you only undertake work for your employer for the hours you are expected to be at work and that you do not undertake any work for them during the hours you are being paid through the furlough scheme.

Shielding and furlough

If you are shielding and on furlough, your employer should conduct a risk assessment before you return to work. If this risk assessment indicates it may not be safe for you to return, or you do not believe it is safe, then you may wish to discuss with your manager whether they will extend your furlough. If your manager declines to put you on furlough but you do not believe that it is safe for you to attend work, you should seek RCN support by raising your concerns with your local RCN representative or by contacting RCN Direct on 0345 772 6100.


Before reading this section, please ensure you have also read the 'Furlough: the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme' information above.

How long would I be furloughed for? 

The scheme is currently scheduled to run until the end of September 2021. There is currently no maximum or minimum time you can be furloughed within this period.

If you are currently on furlough and are concerned about being unable to return to work, for example because you do not yet have childcare available, then you should make your employer aware of these issues and discuss them with your manager in the first instance. 

What will I be paid while on furlough?

If you are furloughed then your employer will only receive 80% of your normal pay from this scheme. This may be calculated based on your pay before the scheme was introduced. It will then be for your employer to decide whether to only pay you this 80% or whether to top up your pay to the full amount. The RCN encourages all employers to consider paying our members their full salary not just the 80% they receive from the government whenever they can afford to do so. If you are furloughed then you should speak to your manager about how much you are going to be paid. From July 2021 if you are still on furlough then the amount your employer receives from the government will be reduced, but your pay should stay the same.

Employees who are furloughed for part of their working time and are working their remaining hours as usual should receive full pay for the hours they work, even if they only receive 80% for the hours they are on furlough. Please note that while at work you should be paid based on your current salary, but for any hours for which you are on furlough your pay is calculated based on the average amount you were being paid before scheme was introduced, so these rates of pay may differ.

What if I don’t have a fixed salary or work through an agency or bank?

If you earn a variable amount each month, for example because you are a bank worker, an agency worker or on a zero hours contract, you can still be furloughed and paid through this scheme. The government guidance explains how your agency or employer should calculate your average earnings for the purpose of this scheme. To retain their eligibility for pay protection under the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, bank and agency workers must not take on any work through their bank/agency in their period of furlough.

If you are an agency worker working via an umbrella company then it would be the umbrella company that would need to decide whether to furlough you and use this scheme, not your agency. If you work agency shifts but are classed as self-employed for tax purposes, then you are not eligible to be furloughed. There is separate government support for the self-employed so you may want to investigate whether you are eligible for this.

Do I still pay tax and National Insurance while I am furloughed?

If your employer decides to make use of this scheme then they would pay you as normal through their payroll system, including deducting income tax, National Insurance, and where appropriate, pension contributions. It would then be your employer’s responsibility to claim this money back from the government through the scheme. From 1 November 2020 your employer can still claim for 80% of your wages but will need to pay employer National Insurance contributions and employer pension contributions, as they can no longer claim for these.

Do I accrue annual leave while I am furloughed?

The guidance states that a furloughed employee continues to accrue annual leave in line with their contract. However, agency workers and those on zero hours contracts accrue holiday based on time worked. If you are furloughed by an agency, you cannot work for that agency and therefore may not be able to accrue annual leave during the furlough. The guidance to employees who have been furloughed says that you can choose to take some of your accrued annual leave while on furlough if you want to. This would mean that any furloughed worker only receiving 80% of their normal pay would have this topped up to 100% of their normal pay while they are using their annual leave.

Can I still work while I am furloughed?

If an employer or agency furloughs you then you cannot undertake any work for that organisation for the duration of the time you are furloughed. If you are on part time furlough then you should only undertake work for your employer for the hours you are expected to be at work, and not any of the hours for which you are furloughed.

If you work for more than one employer/agency then it may be possible to be furloughed by more than one organisation at the same time, since each one would only be claiming based on the amount that they usually pay you.

If you have been placed on furlough leave and want to start a new job (e.g. in the NHS, on the staff bank), you need to check this with your main employer. HMRC have confirmed that employees are permitted to work for another employer while furloughed provided their contract allows that. Therefore, please check with your main employer before agreeing to undertake additional work elsewhere. 

As the pandemic has progressed, we have seen more members with Long Covid presenting to the service. This is when, following a diagnosis of COVID-19, symptoms persist for longer than usual.

Don't be alone when you are facing the uncertainty of this new health condition. Speak to other members in a similar situation to give and receive non-professional support. In the first instance, you can join our closed facebook group for members affected by COVID-19. You must provide your membership number when prompted in order to join the group and reference that you are joining for support with Long Covid.

If you need professional advice about how Long Covid is affecting your employment, or to arrange professional emotional support from our Counselling Service, please contact RCN Direct. Our advisers will be able to look at the best support for you.

Redeployment of disabled staff

Governments from across the UK have published guidance for the NHS on staff health, safety and well-being issues, including for people who are most vulnerable. The RCN fully expects that employers and managers will adhere to this.

We fully expect that managers to be aware of and complying with the guidance and that there should be clear guidance on the redeployment of staff with disabilities across the health sector. There must also be systems in place to provide support to staff when making a decision on redeployment (e.g. occupational health services) and staff should be supported to raise concerns when appropriate and these concerns should be given priority.

Our members who identify themselves as disabled provide a vital contribution to the nursing workforce, and must be properly supported during the emergency period. In the current circumstances, individual members may be asked to move to a different clinical setting. It would not be acceptable for this redeployment to put their health and wellbeing at risk.

We continue to provide advice to our members with individuals issues through RCN officers, including the Peer Support Officer. If anyone is concerned they should contact RCN Direct.

Removing Disabling Barriers at Work

Click to read our new guidance, based on the lived experience of our members.

If you can't find an answer to your disability related query in our existing resources, or have suggestions for additional resources at this time, please email us.

Speak to other nurses and HCAs with lived experience of disability. 

Join the RCN Peer Support Service today to give and receive support.