Family doctors are being forced out of their jobs after developing long Covid, prompting demands for the government to compensate NHS staff with the debilitating condition who cannot work.
GPs struggling with the condition have told the Observer they felt “shocked and betrayed” when their colleagues removed them from their posts because of prolonged sick leave.
“I received a lawyer’s letter on behalf of the other partners in the GP surgery telling me that they were ending my partnership. I understood why they did what they did, because I was too sick to work at the time. But it was also callous and mercenary,” said one doctor who lost her job.
“It was hard on me, as one of the partners was also my best friend. The partners were worried I’d be a ‘disabled partner’ and wouldn’t be able to pull my weight. Long Covid meant I simply couldn’t function normally and so couldn’t meet the return to work date they gave me, so they exercised their right under our partnership agreement to end my partnership at the surgery,” added the GP, who asked to remain anonymous.
“I thought they were being very short-sighted as I did start to feel much better once on medication, and within a few weeks I was working full time again. I know of three other GPs who got Covid and then long Covid and then lost their jobs because they were too sick to come back to work at the end of the partnership agreement after six, nine or 12 months.”
The issue has prompted soul-searching within the medical profession about what duty of care family doctors owe each other when they cannot work because they have been laid low with exhaustion, brain fog, breathlessness and other symptoms of long Covid.
Locum medics and hospital doctors with the condition are also having problems including loss of income, trouble accessing sick pay, contractual difficulties and getting employers to accept that they cannot work normally, sometimes for months.
The British Medical Association, the doctors’ main trade union, said it has advised 42 members with long Covid over pay and employment difficulties – and that the real number of medics in that situation is likely to be much higher. The 42 include GPs, specialists, trainees and 17 hospital consultants.
Dr Kaveri Jalundhwala, a trainee GP and vice-chair of the Doctors’ Association UK, has been battling long Covid since April 2020 and has been unable to work a full week since then. “I’ve had to accept working at 60%, so that is a loss of thousands per year – a significant pay cut. Due to my illness, I probably have had six to eight months added to my training time, which means a delay in passing out as a GP.
“Anecdotally, I’ve heard from multiple doctors who have lost their jobs. They have ranged from GP partners, GP locums, salaried GPs, hospital consultants and hospital locums.”
Dr Sarah Burns, who helped set up a Facebook group for doctors with long Covid last year, said: “Anecdotally and from multiple sources, not just the Facebook group, I have heard about a number of doctors who have lost their jobs or encountered significant financial hardship due to long Covid. These have been mainly GPs, who have not had the same access to sick pay as hospital colleagues.”
Dr David Strain, a BMA spokesman on long Covid, said that extended sick leave by doctors with the condition was “more complicated” in primary care because while hospital doctors are directly employed by the NHS, GPs work in surgeries, which are private businesses.
“Most hospitals have been very supportive. But some doctors who have wanted to come back to work three rather than five days a week, because that’s all they can manage, have found that their trust hasn’t wanted to pay them for five days,” he said, despite them almost certainly having contracted Covid in the course of their work. One of the 42 had to seek the BMA’s help when their hospital took away their on-call supplement when they could not go back to doing nightshifts because they were too unwell to work overnight.
The BMA and other health unions are in talks with the Department of Health and Social Care about the government setting up a compensation scheme which both NHS staff and their employers could access when one of them is left unable to work for a lengthy period due to long Covid.
The Office for National Statistics last month estimated that 1.1 million Britons have long Covid. It found that 122,000 healthcare workers were affected, more than any other type of employee, and ahead of teachers and other education staff (114,000) and social care personnel (31,000).
• This article was amended on 23 May 2021 to add text stating that Dr Kaveri Jalundhwala is a vice-chair of the Doctors’ Association UK.