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Four years ago, we were clapping health workers in the street. Now we’re reducing their benefits

Government has terminated a special sick pay scheme for the tiny proportion of staff who have developed long Covid and can no longer work

Remember when we emerged en masse from behind our front doors, flung open our windows, and stationed ourselves on our balconies and at our garden gates to applaud the heroism of frontline workers during the Covid-19 pandemic. While most of us were cocooning or confined within walking distance from home, nurses, doctors, paramedics, hospital porters and caterers were risking contagion in the bravest demonstration of solidarity ever witnessed in this State.

During the first month of the lockdown, at 8pm on Friday, March 27th, 2020, we streamed forth to show them our gratitude. In Dáil Éireann, the Ceann Comhairle interrupted a debate on the Emergency Measures in the Public Interest (Covid-19) Bill for TDs to join in the gesture of “thanks and respect to the workers on the front line”. Politicians rose from their seats and clapped till their hands were raw.

Now, just two years since the Government began lifting the restrictions, that respect has vanished. What has replaced it smacks of contempt. Urgent care hospital workers are expected to perform the daily high wire act of balancing their duty to do no harm in overcrowded conditions reminiscent of war movies. That is not the worst of it though. To add insult to injury, the Government has terminated a special sick pay scheme for the tiny proportion of staff who have developed long Covid and who are so incapacitated that they can no longer work.

An intensive care nurse identified as Siobhán told her story on RTÉ radio last month, on the weekend the scheme was stopped. She recalled that, in late February 2020 – when Ireland had yet to enter lockdown – she was looking after “the first patient” with Covid. This was before personal protective equipment became standard issue and long before vaccines became available.


Siobhán said she developed symptoms of the virus on March 3rd. Compared with the 23 healthcare workers who have died from Covid, according to figures published by the Health Protection Surveillance Centre (HPSC), Siobhán was lucky to survive but, more than four years later, her life is stagnated by long Covid.

She suffers from brain fog, extreme fatigue, nausea and vomiting. She struggles to find words and her heart races wildly after the mildest exertion, such as taking a shower. She cannot play with her three-year-old son who is too frightened to leave home for school because he is convinced she is going to die.

The effect on the State’s coffers is nothing compared with the terrifying uncertainty facing anyone who zipped up body bags in hospitals, held the hands of the lonely dying, and who now contemplates the unknown duration of their own illness

She is attending six consultants because of the variety of her illnesses and paying them €150-€300 per visit, in addition to her GP bills. Her medicines cost more than €200 a month. She thinks it’s “ironic” that “we were looking after the sickest of the sick while everyone else was told to stay at home”, and now she is at risk of losing her home due to her medical expenses and lost income.

“It’s gone from a round of applause to a middle finger from the Government,” Siobhán said.

The special sick pay scheme for healthcare workers with long Covid was introduced as a temporary measure in July 2022 and was extended for six months last October. It ended on March 31st, leaving them dependent on the normal public service sick pay scheme. By last December, 143 healthcare staff had been receiving payments for more than 28 months. By crude calculation, the annual cost is roughly €1.5 million. A State that cannot afford to pay that to its heroes is a State, in the immortal words of Oscar Wilde, that knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.

Some trade unions, including the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation (INMO), have referred the termination of the scheme to the Workplace Relations Commission. A hearing is imminent. The optics of workers acclaimed by Dáil Éireann having to resort to the industrial relations court for sick pay evoke a stingy and mean-spirited State. That impression is compounded by the previous tardiness in disbursing the Covid bonus payments to nurses, the continuing failure to establish the long-promised Covid inquiry, and the fact that Ireland – along with Greece – is one of only two EU countries that do not recognise Covid as an occupational illness for patient-facing workers.

The Department of Health is not the culprit here. Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly is believed to be disposed to resuming the scheme. The problem lies with the Departments of Social Protection and Public Expenditure. The latter ruled that the six-month extension last October would be the final one. This was followed in November by a report from the Department of Social Protection stating that long Covid should not be added to the list of occupational diseases, meaning that sufferers of the chronic condition cannot claim occupational injury benefit.

One of the reasons given in the report is a difficulty in proving that someone contracted the disease in the workplace, especially after the summer of 2020 when community transmission became dominant. This is a tacit admission that frontline workers infected in the first six months of the pandemic were most likely to have become ill as a result of their work. The special payment scheme provides a similar acknowledgment because, in order to qualify for it, applicants had to prove they had been at work during the 10 days before they got sick. The implicit apprehension that chancers and malingerers would exploit the scheme is utterly distasteful considering the heroism those workers showed throughout the global crisis.

The report also suggests that the prevailing uncertainty about long Covid and its potential longevity in individual cases is another prohibitive factor. Whatever about the effect that may have on the State’s coffers, it is nothing compared with the terrifying uncertainty facing anyone who zipped up body bags in hospitals, held the hands of the lonely dying and bore witness to unrelenting death, and who now contemplates the unknown duration of their own illness.

Simon Harris was the minister for health when Siobhán fell ill. Now he is the Taoiseach and two of his Fine Gael Party Ministers – Paschal Donohoe and deputy leader Heather Humphreys – have the power to do the right thing for those who sacrificed their own health for the greater good. This is their opportunity to show the nation’s sincere appreciation.

For the rest of us, the pandemic is retreating into history but for Siobhán and her child and for many of her colleagues, its silent aftershock continues to reverberate.