Long Covid: We demand protection in law

Written by: Dr Patrick Roach | Published:
Long Covid: Dr Patrick Roach, general secretary of the NASUWT, which is calling for long Covid to be recognised as a disability under the Equality Act

Teachers dealing with the often-devastating impact of long Covid are not protected by legislation. Dr Patrick Roach urges everyone to get behind a new campaign to change this...

More than one million people in the UK are now living with long Covid, but the existing legislation to protect workers fails to recognise the condition as a disability.

Given the scale of the condition and its devastating and enduring consequences, it is clear that this must change. The NASUWT has launched a campaign to rectify this injustice. We are seeking to achieve legal recognition for long Covid as a disability under the Equality Act.

Alarmingly, data from the Office of National Statistics has confirmed that rates of long Covid among teachers and education support staff are second only to workers in the NHS (ONS, 2021).

Like our fellow keyworkers in the NHS, teachers have stepped up to the frontline of this pandemic. They have put their health at risk to educate our children and young people and not only fulfil, but often surpass, their duties as educators. As the ONS data has shown, this often occurs at the personal cost of incurring life-changing and long-lasting consequences.

This data exposes the prevalence of long Covid in our schools and colleges and, in turn, necessitates urgent action from government and employers to respond to the complex challenges the condition presents.

The debilitating condition includes symptoms of the virus, lasting organ damage, impairment of mental processing (including “brain fog”, anxiety and depression), extreme fatigue and shortness of breath, leading to exhaustion after even minor activity. Many, unsurprisingly, report their daily activities severely impeded and are left unable to work.

Yet these symptoms alone are just one component of the challenges teachers living with long Covid face. The hidden nature of this relatively new condition leaves those living with long Covid vulnerable to stigmatisation, discrimination and their access requirements often going unmet.

Throughout the pandemic, the NASUWT has regrettably received reports from disabled members that some employers have been disregarding the medical opinions of their GPs and specialist consultants. Others have raised concern relating to dismissal or discipline as a result of their long Covid condition or being unable to return to work.

The equality legislation, as it stands, fails to adequately protect and support teachers experiencing long Covid. With the serious risk of emerging variants, more teachers could still be prone to developing this condition and finding themselves unable to work, leaving them under threat of financial hardship and without sufficient legal protections.

No teacher living with long Covid should be forced to live in fear of being disciplined by their employer or being dismissed from their job because they contracted this debilitating condition.

By recognising long Covid as a disability under the Equality Act, we can begin to alleviate this fear. This landmark recognition would initiate the strengthening of protections and implement the essential support and mitigations required to ensure our schools and colleges are fair, inclusive and accessible workplaces for all.

Teachers with long Covid who want to continue working must be empowered to do so flexibly and with full confidence that risk assessments are carried out by employers and statutory obligations upheld.

Just as has been secured for NHS workers, ministers must, as a matter of urgency, provide financial compensation for all teachers, including supply teachers, whose careers have been impacted by Covid-19. The life-changing repercussions of long Covid must not be compounded by life-changing financial hardship, particularly given the great personal sacrifice teachers have made throughout this crisis for our children and young people.

Support must also be extended to those who are forced to retire early as a result of long Covid, with improved access to ill-health pension provision. Too often medical advisors for public service pension schemes are unwilling to draw the conclusion that incapacity has reached the threshold for the awarding of ill-health benefits. That must change if we are to avoid further penalising those teachers who are unable to work due to long Covid.

Alongside this, the government needs to consider regulations that ensure equal access to ill-health retirement provision for those with long Covid. Long overdue regulation will tackle unfair discrepancies of implementation across both geographies and demographics, which the pandemic has sadly been characterised by.

Much of the last 16 months has exposed the inaccessibility of our workplaces before the pandemic. Simultaneously, they have also proved that flexible working, swiftly responding to mitigating circumstances, and the implementation of access requirements are all entirely feasible – but only if the will is there.

Our campaign aims to achieve greater awareness and support for those living with long Covid. However, we also hope to stimulate a conversation that renders visible the invisible-but-very-serious reality of hidden disabilities in every workplace.

The NASUWT recognises the life-changing severity of long Covid. It is time that legislation, the government and employers did too.

  • Dr Patrick Roach is general secretary of the NASUWT.

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