Exclusive: Zahawi orders long Covid shake-up as teacher cases rise

Education secretary to issue new guidance on long Covid, as unions say teachers should get up to 12 months of full-paid leave if diagnosed with the condition
10th June 2022, 6:00am


Exclusive: Zahawi orders long Covid shake-up as teacher cases rise


The education secretary has asked officials to draw up new guidance on long Covid for schools as cases continue to rise among teachers and support staff, Tes understands.

Nadhim Zahawi’s request comes as Department for Education research suggests that more than a third of secondary schools are reporting workforce challenges due to long Covid.

It also comes as teaching unions unveil a new joint protocol, seen by Tes, which calls for staff who have been medically diagnosed with long Covid to be given up to 12 months of full-paid leave.

Mr Zahawi and unions are acting against a backdrop of rising concern from scientists that the continued rise in teachers suffering from long Covid is “eroding” the workforce and will have “devastating consequences”.

An investigation by Tes in February found that a lack of guidance for schools on how to approach long Covid was compounding problems for leaders and staff, who also faced scepticism about the condition and a lack of legal and medical advice.

Now Tes has learned that the DfE is preparing guidance on the condition for schools, in a move being welcomed by education unions.

Julie McCulloch, director of policy at the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said any guidance needs to come “as soon as possible” as school staff and leaders are “experiencing the impact of long Covid right now”.

She hoped any guidance or research would “show an understanding of the scale of the issue” as well as the “impact on staff and pupils, and how best to support them if they are suffering from the effects of long Covid”.

Ms McCulloch also highlighted the potential need for “additional funding” to help to pay for supply cover where schools are “struggling to fill the gaps”.

Meanwhile, Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the NEU teaching union, said government guidance on long Covid in the education sector would be a “welcome step” but was something that should have begun “months ago”.

He hoped the guidance would look at the symptoms of long Covid, the need for fair treatment and the high prevalence in the sector due to the “greater risks of catching Covid in school”.

Long Covid in schools: call to extend sick pay

The joint protocol, formed by the NEU, the NASUWT, the ASCL and more, sets out a “temporary suspension of some elements of the sickness absence scheme for staff medically diagnosed with long Covid”.

It also outlines that members of staff who have had long Covid symptoms for 12 months or more, or who are assessed by an approved medical practitioner as having symptoms likely to last 12 months or more, may receive paid disability leave while waiting for adjustments to be put in place.

Since Tes’ investigation in February setting out the damaging effects of long Covid on schools, there has been even more evidence demonstrating the scale of the problem.

For example, DfE research published last month found that the condition was causing workforce challenges in more than a third of secondary schools (36 per cent) and more than a quarter (29 per cent) of primaries surveyed.

The weighted survey of 665 schools was carried out in February 2022. 

More than one in 10 (14 per cent) of schools said that staff absence due to long Covid had been more of an issue in the spring term of this year than in the autumn.

And the problem only seems to be growing in the aftermath of the Omicron wave.

Office for National Statistics research, published earlier this month, shows the highest incidence of self-reported long Covid of any period since records began in April 2021.

Teachers hit hard by long Covid

There are now an estimated 2 million people in the UK living with long Covid (around 3.1 per cent of the population), according to the ONS statistics.

But this proportion is even higher in the teaching and education sector, where - as of 1 June 2022 [with data collected up to March] - 4.6 per cent of the teaching and education sector workers reported they had long Covid.

More than two-thirds of this group said it was impacting on their daily activities (71 per cent).

At the time of Tes’ earlier investigation into long Covid, the impact on schools was still largely unclear.

But as more details emerge on the ongoing slow pandemic of the condition and its effects on school staffing, scientists are warning that the picture is even worse than feared.

For example, it has long been understood that “breakthrough” infections - when an individual develops the virus despite vaccination - could lead to long Covid.

However, there was a hope that a supposedly weaker Omicron strain could reduce the likelihood of developing long Covid.

But Danny Altmann, professor of immunology at Imperial College, said this scenario had not played out and, in fact. there had been more breakthrough cases of long Covid than may have initially been expected.

As a result, we were now “in the process of paying a very high price for having it rip through the schools”, he said.

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