How not to treat heroes
It takes a leap of imagination to put yourself in the place of health professionals at the beginning of the pandemic. Hospitals were filling up with COVID19 cases, preparedness had been a victim of government negligence, the NHS was overstretched, ITU beds some of the lowest in Europe, and basic protective equipment was lacking.
By the end of the first wave in July 2020, 540 health and social care workers had died of COVID, the worst in the world after Russia. By the following January, that number climbed to 840 as the vaccination campaign started and treatments became available.
They have been quietly buried, both literally and in the minds of the public, but what of those who survived but have not recovered? How has their sacrifice been recognised?
Healthcare professionals who have developed long COVID as a consequence of being on the front line during that tough first year of the pandemic continue to suffer, and many have lost their livelihoods.
One example of many….
Kelly Fearnley, who qualified in August 2019, is worth quoting – she was a mature student who had worked long and hard to get onto the wards and start her foundation years when COVID19 came along. She reports:
“I walked onto the ward full of covid patients to find only plastic pinnies and flimsy blue surgical masks. I’d expected long sleeved surgical gowns and FFP3 masks. I remember asking a senior nurse where the other masks were. She replied, ‘These are the ones we’re using now.’
“I spent 10 hours a day for five consecutive days surrounded by infectious patients so I was subjected to high viral loads on a ward with no ventilation and an absence of respiratory protective equipment.
“It was essentially a covid soup.”
The next week Fearnley tested positive for covid-19. Three weeks later she became severely unwell and she hasn’t worked since. Because of long covid, Fearnley has been forced to relinquish her provisional registration and is currently not able to work as a doctor.
“I’m living with my dad—which is obviously not where you want to be at 37 years old—and my ability to earn a living has been taken away. I’ve opted to take a 12 month career break in the hope of recovering sufficiently to return to training, but my long term career is at risk. All my plans to work, save, and buy a house have been shelved.”
She went on to form an alliance of doctors seeking help and support for what they have been through, called Long Covid Doctors for Action. (LCD4A) Many of these doctors have in effect, been sacked due to reduced capability, retired decades early and are facing financial destitution. It has been estimated by the ONS that 4.4% of healthcare workers have acquired long COVID.
A survey carried out by the BMA in association with the LCD4A and the results are sobering in terms of the impact on those unlucky to have long covid. Its findings will be fed into the ongoing pandemic inquiry.
What to do
The five demands from the BMA and LCD4C are eminently reasonable.
- Financial support for doctors and healthcare staff with post-acute covid
- Post-acute covid to be recognised as an occupational disease in healthcare workers, with a definition that covers all the debilitating symptoms that people with post-acute covid experience
- Improved access to physical and mental health services to aid comprehensive assessment, appropriate investigations, and treatment
- Greater workplace protection for healthcare staff risking their lives for others
- Better support for post-acute covid sufferers to return to work safely, including a flexible approach to the use of workplace adjustments
In particular making long COVID an industrial disease would entitle those affected to some sort of compensation in the form of industrial injuries benefits. Of course the Department of Health muddy these waters with claims that the disease is poorly defined and that there is not enough evidence to make the illness and industrial disease, so no help there.
This is despite the Industrial Injuries Advice Council, the official body which advised the government on industrial illness agreeing that those with long COVID should be able to claim industrial injury benefits.
Long covid clinics are hard to access and help for many is just not there at all. Heroes are being, as ever, treated as zeros.
Fearnley rightly concludes:
“I contracted this illness caring for covid positive patients because my employer failed to provide me with adequate respiratory protective equipment. There should be more of an effort to support healthcare workers. At a time when the country needed us, we stepped up, and it’s not right that now in our time of need the country steps away.”
It is a sad sign of our times that once again charities attempt into step into the void created by government negligence and lack of humane spending decisions.
£10 donations to the Cameron Fund can be made by texting ‘HELPGP’ to 70085. Donate to the Royal Medical Benevolent Fund at https://rmbf.org/donate