With New Zealand one of the last countries to be hit by a widespread Covid-19 outbreak, Jean Bell looks at what can be learnt from overseas experience with long Covid

So far, New Zealand has not seen huge numbers of people suffering from the lingering effects of a Covid-19 infection. According to data from ACC, there are fewer than half a dozen people currently receiving support for long Covid symptoms in New Zealand.

But the illness is being felt much more overseas, and this could be a sign of what’s to come here.

A quarter of UK employers say long Covid is one of the main reasons staff are away sick for long periods of time, while an Oxford University study found more than a third of Covid-19 patients suffered at least one symptom in the six-month period after infection, with fatigue one of the most common.

The jury is still out on whether Omicron leads to long Covid in the same way the Delta or Alpha variants did, but health experts say it should not be underestimated.

Auckland-based employment lawyer Barbara Buckett says employers will be going in blind when it comes to managing employees with long Covid.

For example, there’s a big question mark hanging over whether employees with long Covid should be treated differently to those with other long-term illnesses.

In some situations, Buckett says medical incapacity may come into play, where a worker is unable to do their job due to an illness or injury and it is within the employer’s rights to terminate the person’s employment.

“Is it any different from any other long-term illness, and do the same rules apply? Or does the legal and contractual framework have to look to alternatives? I don’t know the answer to that.”

Uncertainties abound with long Covid

Paula Lorgelly is a health economics professor. The New Zealander has been based in the UK, where she’s been involved in a massive clinical study, led by the University College London NHS Trust, that’s set to look at what long Covid is, how to treat it, and how to manage it.

Over in the UK, she says employers are easing sick staff back into work by making appropriate adjustments, such as working from home, working fewer or different hours, or doing a different role.

She says long Covid presents a raft of unknowns, as each person shows different symptoms and it’s not clear how to treat this.

“It’s going to be different than if the pandemic had, say, caused a form of heart disease that we could treat with some medication and you could get those people back to work,” she says.

“We don’t know how to treat these people [with long Covid] and the health system probably doesn’t have the resources to treat them all.”

“I spoke to many long Covid patients and none of them are the same. It might be that the symptoms can be managed for some by working at home, being flexible, and adapting their work. But you can’t do that for other workers.”
– Health economics professor Paula Lorgelly

While office workers can negotiate working from home, people whose job requires them to be physically present, such as a supermarket checkout worker, might get the short end of the stick when it comes to keeping their job.

“People keep talking about the flexible workplace, but actually, it’s only for those workplaces that have offices,” Lorgelly says.

“I spoke to many long Covid patients and none of them are the same. It might be that the symptoms can be managed for some by working at home, being flexible, and adapting their work. But you can’t do that for other workers.”

Employers told to act in good faith

ACC acting chief operating officer Gabrielle O’Connor says the organisation provides cover for illness, such as Covid-19, when there is sufficient evidence that the person contracted the virus while in the workplace, or performing a work-related task.

“As with all covered claims, ACC would provide support based on a person’s circumstances and needs, for the length of time it takes them to recover, where there is medical evidence that their ongoing incapacity is caused by their injury,” she says.

A person’s vaccine status is not taken into account when considering ACC cover or entitlement.

Dennis Maga, general secretary at First Union, isn’t aware of any union members suffering from long Covid.

Employers should provide discretionary leave for staff who’ve been affected by long Covid, he says.

“A pandemic should not provide employers an excuse to drive down sick and annual leave balances, and any good employer should embrace their ability to support workers who are dealing with this unprecedented illness,” he says.

The Ministry of Innovation, Business, and Employment policy director Tracy Mears says employees should talk to their boss about the impact that any illnesses might have on their ability to do their job.

Each situation is likely to be case-specific, and there may be parts of the job an employee can still do. 

“We encourage employers and employees to consult their employment agreement, discuss, and seek to reach agreement in good faith on what approach will be taken.”

Mears says guidance around sick leave entitlement and medical incapacity can be found online.

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