Teachers, train drivers and other union activists have called for urgent action to secure the rights of disabled workers with long Covid.
Among their demands, they are calling for statutory recognition of long Covid to ensure disabled employees are protected under the Equality Act.
Other demands, backed overwhelmingly by this week’s TUC Disabled Workers Conference in Bournemouth (pictured), include a call to reform the Access to Work scheme to make it easier for disabled workers to work from home.
They also want to see a new right to a phased return to work for those with long Covid.
Kim Knappett, from the National Education Union (NEU), said education workers had been disproportionately exposed to Covid during the pandemic because they were seen as key workers.
She said: “The consequence of this is that we have a large number of members with a whole range of after-effects of their infection.
“The NEU, like many other unions, are struggling to get employers to admit that often the infection was caused during their employment.
“This often leads to financial issues for those members as they reach the limit of their paid sick leave and are forced into even greater poverty.
“We do need to stand together to strengthen the campaign for statutory recognition of long Covid as a disability and to get better treatment for those who were failed by the government during and post the pandemic.”
Pat Roche, from the University and College Union (UCU), told delegates that classrooms “are probably one of the most dangerous places in the world in a Covid pandemic”.
She highlighted the death of “inspirational” teacher Donna Coleman, a longstanding UCU member, who worked at Burnley College and died in January 2021 after contracting Covid.
An investigation by the Health and Safety Executive found the college had broken health and safety laws because of its failure to protect staff from the virus.
Coleman had been working at the college and before her death UCU had rejected the college’s risk assessments in her working area because of inadequate Covid controls.
Philip Blundell, from Unite, a long Covid survivor, moved a motion – passed almost unanimously – that recognised the extent of long Covid and called for action to support workers with the condition.
He said he believed the impact of long Covid would “hit us like a train” over the next couple of years.
He told fellow delegates: “When I talked to my line manager one day about long Covid, I was told that I was very lucky and I was told not to rock the boat because I was a high-functioning disabled person and I was lucky to still be in a job, so be careful and don’t rock the boat.
“Well, members of this conference, I am going to rock this boat and I ask everybody to join me.”
Ciorstaidh Reichle, from GMB, reminded the conference that six out of 10 deaths during the pandemic had been of disabled people.
She said: “We should be looking at ways to promote a safe working environment, especially for workers at higher risk, shielding being one of the optimum protections.
“The safest option would be to work from home.
“We call on the TUC to support reform of the Access to Work fund to make it financially manageable for disabled workers to work from home.”
She also called for the promotion of flexible working for disabled workers.
Ian Penovich, an ASLEF train driver, said members of his union and others “kept the country moving” at the height of the pandemic, so that other workers could do their vital jobs.
He said: “In the face of a national and global crisis, our unions did what we were best at, we pulled together and organised and did what needed to be done, for many of us putting ourselves at great personal risk.
“Now there are many among us who are suffering from long Covid as a result, and they deserve to be looked after in the same way that they looked after the country.”
Cecily Blyther, from the University and College Union, said: “During the pandemic, we learnt a great deal more about… working from home, cleanliness, hygiene, hybrid working and a great variety of working conditions.
“It should now be more possible than ever to enable everyone to do their job by setting up appropriate reasonable adjustments.”
A second motion, proposed by the NASUWT, and passed unanimously, raised concerns that the legacy of the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic had “left disabled workers more exposed to discrimination and unfair employer practices, including through the misuse of sickness absence and capability procedures, and with reduced access to jobs, promotion and career development”.
The union also warned that the high rate of long COVID among them was “driving teachers out of the profession”.
It called on the TUC to strengthen the campaign for statutory recognition of long Covid within the definition of disability in the Equality Act and to hold the government to account for its failure to protect disabled workers during the pandemic.
Kathryn Downs, from the NASUWT, said the government and employers “hung disabled workers out to dry” during the pandemic.
She said: “Those who were shielding found themselves isolated and others who were classed as key workers under the loosest of terms found themselves having to choose between employment or their health.
“Some were furloughed, and others lost their employment altogether… as teachers we were OK apparently. We were told we were not at risk if schools were open.”
She only received her shielding letter halfway through the second lockdown.
NASUWT figures show the education sector has had the highest rate of long Covid.
The union has been campaigning for statutory recognition of long Covid as a disability under the Equality Act, which would provide workers with statutory protection such as the right to reasonable adjustments and protection against discrimination.
It has also been challenging employers to ensure teachers with long Covid are supported and not treated unfairly, by ensuring they have access to decent sickness absence provision, and reasonable adjustments including the right to time off, extended phased returns and access to flexible working.
Downs said many teachers had been forced to leave their classroom jobs because of the failure of such support.
She pointed to Office for National Statistics figures which found six in 10 Covid-related deaths were of disabled people.
But she said: “There was very little concern about holding the government and employers to account for the actions which put our lives at a lower cost to other workers.”
NASUWT evidence has shown an increase in disability hate crime in the classroom, with almost three-fifths of disabled members reporting disablist attitudes had worsened in the last year.
Paul Nowak, the TUC’s general secretary, told the conference yesterday (Wednesday) that the TUC had published ground-breaking research into long Covid which found that one in seven workers with long Covid said they had lost their jobs for reasons linked to the condition.
He said the TUC was campaigning for long Covid to be treated as a disability under the Equality Act.
He said TUC research had shown “that it was cuts to public services, it was austerity, that left us woefully unprepared when the virus struck”.
And he said austerity had killed “hundreds of thousands” of people, regardless of claims made by former Tory cabinet ministers George Osborne and Matt Hancock, and former prime minister David Cameron.
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