Thursday, 23 September 2021
Ceisteanna - Questions - Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions
1. To ask the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform if he has given further consideration to amending the public sector sick pay or occupational injury and illness schemes in the context of long Covid; if so, if the estimated cost or estimated range will be provided; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [45428/21]
We know long Covid is a real, serious and debilitating condition from which many people are suffering. I previously raised with the Minister the possibility of amending the occupational injury and illness scheme or public sector pay. He told me at that point that he was aware of the situation and it was under active review. Is there any update in that regard or an estimation of the cost of doing this?
I thank the Deputy for her question. The position in respect of Covid-19 absences in the public service has not changed since her previous question on the matter, which was answered in January. At the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, it was decided that special leave with pay would be used for self-isolation or a diagnosis of Covid-19 for public service employees in order to assist with the prevention of the onward spread of Covid in the workplace. The arrangements relating to special leave with pay are reviewed and monitored by my Department on an ongoing basis, taking into account the evolving circumstances and public health advice.
The Government agreed Ireland's plan for the next and final phase of our response to the Covid pandemic and published its Covid-19: Reframing the Challenge, Continuing Our Recovery and Reconnecting plan on 31 August. Subject to the continued progress we have seen as a result of the vaccination programme, and all of our efforts in preventing the spread of Covid, we will enter a final phase on 22 October. This phase will see the majority of restrictions lifted and replaced by guidance and advice to enable us to work together to protect ourselves and to live our lives to the fullest extent possible.
We have provided support for our public service employees, including our front-line workforce, through the provision of special leave with pay for Covid-19. The current arrangements, like all other Covid-19-related policies and regulations, will be reviewed and will be subject to amendment as we see the continued benefits of the vaccination programme as we enter the next and final phase of this pandemic. My officials are keeping all Covid-related working arrangements for public service employees under regular review. Although special leave with pay is available for self-isolation and where a person has been diagnosed with Covid for certain time periods, public service employees may access the public service sick leave scheme thereafter. The scheme provides for certain payments to staff during periods of absence from work due to illness or injury.
Additional information not given on the floor of the House
It provides for a maximum of 92 days on full pay in a rolling one-year period, followed by a maximum of 91 days on half pay in a rolling one-year period, subject to a maximum of 183 days paid sick leave in a rolling four-year period. There is access to additional sick leave in certain circumstances as guided by the critical illness protocol.
I have been contacted by several young women who have been affected and deeply impacted by long Covid. I will recount the story of a woman named Karen who contacted me. She is 36 years of age and a front-line worker who tested positive on 31 December. She was admitted to the Mater Hospital on 8 January and had to be put on an oxygen machine because she had double pneumonia. Although she recovered from Covid in April, she was referred to the respiratory post-Covid clinic at which she was seen by a range of consultants. Other people who contacted me do not work in the public sector but have had an equally difficult experience. Karen returned to work in late April but relapsed seven weeks afterwards and was forced to go on sick leave and has remained on it. She suffers from headaches, chronic fatigue, dizziness, bad brain fog, breathlessness, high heart rate, palpitations and a lack of energy and she is always tired as a result of long Covid. We need action for people such as Karen.
That sounds like a very difficult case. My thoughts are with that lady. It might be helpful for me to put on the record the arrangements for special leave with pay in the context of Covid. Where an employee had been in the work premises outside of home during the 14 days prior to contracting Covid, special leave with pay may be paid, including for long Covid where necessary and for as long as needed. Where an employee has not been in the workplace in the 14 days prior to contracting Covid, special leave with pay may continue for up to 28 days. If an employee is still unwell after 28 days, he or she will move to ordinary sick leave arrangements. The Deputy will be familiar with the details of the ordinary sick leave arrangements, which, in general terms, are pretty good across the public sector. All of this will be kept under review. In the context of long Covid, there is provision in certain cases for special leave with pay to continue. If that does not apply in any individual case, the normal public service sick leave scheme will kick in and apply.
This woman told me that she is on a couple of new drugs which are used to address long Covid and which cost more than €100 a month. Neither of these drugs is covered by the drug payment scheme. For people who are out of work and cannot afford such drugs, this really is crippling. It can be equally difficult for those in receipt of sick pay who are likely to have other outgoings such as mortgages, rents, etc. I know the Minister is not responsible for health but he is the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform and the power of the purse lies with him. These people are suffering from long Covid. This is a woman who worked on the front line in the public sector but several young women who have been out of work have come to me on this issue. They may have been the main breadwinner in their relationship and they are now really struggling. It is an issue that we will encounter more and more and we really need to tackle it now.
Long Covid is very serious. It is a condition that the Government takes very seriously. We acknowledge how debilitating it can be for individuals in various circumstances. The truth is that we are learning more and more about it with each passing day. As I have outlined, in certain cases the special leave with pay applies for employees who suffer from long Covid. The particular context for that is where they had been in the work premises in the 14-day period prior to contracting Covid-19 so there is a demonstrable possible link between the contraction of Covid and their attendance at the workplace. In that scenario, the special leave with pay can continue for as long as necessary. I do not know if that applies in the particular case to which the Deputy refers. If it does not apply, the normal public service sick leave scheme kicks in. The latter has certain provisions relating to the number of days in a one-year period and over a rolling four-year period and so on for which people can be out sick and continue to be paid in full. If the Deputy wishes to send me the details of the particular case to which she refers, I will happily consider it and take it up with the relevant Minister.