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.

As the COVID-19 outbreak progresses you can find RCN position statements and guidance pertaining to COVID-19 and disability here. For further advice, follow the link to the COVID-19 FAQs. 

Shielding is a measure to protect extremely vulnerable people by minimising interaction with others.

The situation around shielding is complex as the governments across the UK are easing or imposing restrictions at a different pace. Find the latest guidance below:

England

Please see the government's guidance on shielding and if you work in the NHS, please see the NHS employers guidance supporting our most vulnerable people

Northern Ireland

Guidance for 'clinically extremely vulnerable' and 'vulnerable' people and updated government statement.

Scotland

Shielding advice and support.

Wales

Shielding extremely vulnerable people.

Shielding and pay

The RCN believes that it is vital that health and care staff do not suffer any detriment or loss of pay for being away from work in order to protect public safety. Therefore, the RCN expects all health and care employers in the UK to ensure that when staff are shielding in accordance with national public health guidelines, they must be paid their normal pay and not suffer any detriment. This includes all health and care staff - regardless of who their employer is, or what type of health or care service they work in.

If you work within the NHS, please refer to the NHS employers guidance supporting our most vulnerable people

Speak to your employer about any concerns you have. If you feel that you are being disadvantaged or you are being placed at risk, please contact us for further advice. 

Shielding and vaccination

Please see our COVID-19 and vaccination advice guide and the sections on refusal and returning to work.

Shielding and your role (protecting others you care for)

If you are a carer and cannot continue in your role whilst also caring for a vulnerable individual who has been instructed to shield, you should discuss this with your line manager. They may be able to redeploy you.

An employee who lives in the same household as someone who is shielding may also be eligible to be furloughed under the government scheme. Speak to your manager and contact us if you need support.

I am due to return to work after a period of time shielding. What should my employer do to keep me safe?

Shielded workers are at increased risk of severe illness from COVID-19 and should not return to work until shielding requirements are lifted. Even after these dates, vulnerable staff working in health and care environments may still need to work from home in order to keep them safe.

In advance of any potential return to work, your employer must carry out both an individual and workplace risk assessment to look at your role, your individual risk factors and the environment you may be working in. Please see our guidance on individual risk assessments for more information. 

Your employer should not be calling you into work to do a risk assessment, a discussion should take place over the phone/online. As part of the risk assessment, your employer may want to look at redeployment to areas where the risk of exposure is very low or continue with home working. It is natural to feel anxious when being asked to return to work after a long period off, so the RCN would expect your employer to be empathetic and listen to your concerns, offer support for your mental health and look at issues such as risks from travel to work and a phased return as part of the risk assessment.

If you have a disability, your employer will also need to follow the requirements of the Equality Act and make reasonable adjustments. If you are pregnant and have been shielding, your employer must take this into account when reviewing your pregnancy risk assessment. If the employer cannot put the necessary safety measures in place such as adjustments to the job or working from home, you must be suspended on full pay.

If you are concerned about the results of the risk assessment then please speak to you RCN workplace representative or contact us. You may also want to speak to your GP or consultant.  

All employers must take measures to make workplaces COVID-19 secure including taking all reasonable steps to maintain a two metre social distance in the workplace and having robust cleaning and hygiene measures in place.

The Society of Occupational Medicine has some useful information to support staff when they return to work. Please also see our risk assessment guide along with information from NHS People and NHS Employers.

It is important to note that diagnosis of Long COVID is not dependent on having had a positive test for COVID-19.

I was off sick with COVID-19 for 5 weeks during the first wave in May 2020 and received full COVID-19 sick pay including my enhancements for this time. I returned to work in July working part time for a couple of weeks. By the beginning of November I had to go off sick again as I was suffering from extreme muscle pain and chronic fatigue. My GP told me it was probably “Long Covid” and advised that I rest. I can’t afford to be off any longer as my employer is only paying me Statutory Sick Pay and what savings I had have run out now.  What should I do?

Firstly you should check your contract and employer's sick pay policy – this should outline your rights and entitlements. If you work in the NHS, your employer can treat this period of absence in the same way as it did for the original one so that you can receive full COVID-19 sick pay. The situation should be the same for primary care employers too, as funding is available to them for COVID-19 related absences. If your employer refuses to treat your absence this way please contact your RCN rep and ask what local agreements have been made – they may be able to challenge the situation.

If you have evidence that you caught COVID-19 in the course of your work you may be able to claim Injury Allowance (NHS employment only) or Industrial Injuries Disablement Benefit from DWP. If you believe your employer was in some way negligent, perhaps because you weren’t supplied with adequate PPE, you may be able to make a legal claim for personal injury compensation. This is not easy and requires a high level of evidence. Speak to your RCN rep or contact us for more information 

I’m off with Long Covid, will this count towards sickness triggers? 

The RCN expects employers to ignore absence due to COVID-19 when looking at absence management triggers or thresholds. For those working in the NHS this is clearly outlined in the official Health Department guidance:

Your employer may want to meet with you to discuss the support you require, your rehabilitation and return to work, however we would not expect this to stray into formal capability proceedings.  If you are informed that you are now subject to formal absence management, speak to your RCN steward for support or contact us.

I have been asked to claim ESA from the job centre as part of my COVID-19 pay is this right? What is the process?

If you have been receiving Statutory Sick Pay during your time off work with COVID-19, you will need to claim Employment Support Allowance from DWP when your SSP runs out.  SSP can be paid for a maximum of 28 weeks in any one period but will be reduced if you have any time off sick immediately prior to this period.

How does COVID-19 pay affect my pension? 

In the NHS, COVID-19 sick pay or absence pay will be regarded as a regularly occurring payment and so is pensionable.

I am off with Long Covid but my GP has put my reason for being off as related to a pre-existing condition, can I change this and should I? 

The reason for absence on a Fit Note is usually a matter agreed between the GP and the patient. It would be advisable to discuss this with your GP because if your condition can be linked to exposure to COVID-19 in the workplace you may be entitled to additional financial support.

What about my unused annual leave?

Please see our section on annual leave within this guide.

Can I be dismissed if I’m off work for a long time with COVID-19?

The RCN expects all health and social care employers to give maximum support to any staff who are absent due to COVID-19,  this should includes financial as well as employment support.  However, if, after taking medical advice, it appears unlikely that a staff member will be able to return to work in the future it is not automatically unfair for their employer to seek to terminate their contract. This can be complex area so you should seek support from your RCN rep or by contacting us.

Following Long Covid I think I’m ready to return to work, what support can I expect?

As with any long-term illness/absence, your employer should discuss the best way for you to return to work in advance of your return. They may wish to seek advice form an Occupational health adviser or from your GP via advice on your Fit Note. It can be helpful for you to go into any discussions with suggestions which can be implemented to enable you return to work successfully. In the NHS, most employers will have an Absence Management Policy that outlines the process they will follow. All NHS organisations should follow, as a minimum, the guidance outlined in Annex 26 of the NHS Terms and Conditions of Service handbook which describes the requirement for early intervention and consideration of rehabilitation and redeployment. This also includes a requirement for phased return on full pay for an agreed length of time before staff are expected to utilise their annual leave if their hours are still reduced.

In England please also see the NHS Long COVID plan 2021/22 and NHS Employers guidance supporting recovery after long COVID.

The Society of Occupational Medicine has published some helpful guidance on return to work following Long Covid.

My manager is disputing my need for time off with Long Covid what can I do?

Your fitness to work is a matter between you and your GP and is described in your Fit Note. However, legally this is only “advice” to an employer, and they may wish to take further medical advice, for example from an occupational health specialist. HM Government advice to employers states the following: 

“You can choose to give this other evidence precedence over the advice in the fit note. Your employee may disagree with you, and you may need to demonstrate to an employment tribunal why the alternative source of evidence was more acceptable to you than the fit note.”

In England, the NHS Long COVID plan 2021/22 also NHS Employers guidance supporting recovery after long COVID.

This should be discussed in any absence management meeting and you may wish to take someone with you as support. Speak to you RCN rep or contact us for further advice. 

What other support is available?

We have a closed Facebook group for members affected by COVID-19 where you can give and receive non-professional support. You will need your RCN membership number to join the group. Please also note that you are joining for support with Long COVID.

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

Are you suffering with possible symptoms of trauma?

The RCN Counselling Service is offering trauma-focused therapy to RCN members.