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NHS employers warned long Covid relapses ‘likely’ for staff


By Jess Hacker
1 February 2022

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NHS employers have been warned that relapses following long Covid are ‘likely’, with some staff needing to take additional time off.

It comes as part of new guidelines, published today (1 February) by NHS England, intended to help health leaders support colleagues with symptoms of long Covid.

The document noted that long Covid has a ‘complex recovery’ which means ‘it is likely that relapses will occur’.

It said: ‘Some colleagues might return to work when feeling better or able to perform their duties, and shortly need to take time off again when symptoms return or affect their ability to work.’

Managers supporting someone who has returned to work after taking time off have also been advised offer regular health and well-being check-ins.

It said: ‘Recovering from long Covid can be a lengthy process and colleagues will need to be supported to recover at their own pace.

‘All line managers are therefore encouraged to read about the varying symptoms of long Covid and acknowledge that this can affect colleagues in different ways.’

Health leaders are encouraged to:

  • Offer regular health and well-being conversations
  • Discuss reasonable adjustments to working patterns
  • Link in with local occupational health and wellbeing services
  • Share details of mental health hubs and similar support services
  • Encourage attendance at long Covid support groups and peer networks

Staff members concerned that they may have long Covid that is not improving as expected should seek advice and support from their general practice, the guidance said.

This will help to rule out life-threatening complications or unrelated diagnoses, and they may be referred to a long Covid service.

Earlier this week, analysis suggested NHS trusts in England lost at least 1.8 million days to long Covid-caused staff absences in the first 18 months of the pandemic.

Early retirement for staff with long Covid

Staff who are judged to be permanently unable to fulfil their role may also wish to be supported into early retirement, it said.

Under existing ill-health retirement regulations set out in the NHS Pension Scheme, early retirement for staff with long Covid should be treated the same way as requests due to ‘any other illness’.

It said that the eligibility criteria remains the same, with staff assessed on an individual basis and deemed ‘permanently incapable of their NHS employment’.

Managers should refer to occupational health services

Many NHS staff members will have access to occupational health and wellbeing services, however it is ‘likely’ that referral will need to come via a line manager.

The guidance suggested that leaders link in with local occupational health services and employee assistance programmes (EAPs) to understand how they can support staff.

Similarly, there are 40 system-wide wellbeing hubs available in England for staff experiencing mental health symptoms.

The hubs can offer staff a rapid clinical assessment and onward referral to mental health services and psychological support, it said.

The most recent data indicated that as many as 1.3 million people – or 2% of the UK population – are now living with long Covid lasting more than four weeks.

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