UNISON members in health are at the forefront of the rapidly changing Coronavirus pandemic.
This webpage provides key messages and up-to-date official guidance from government to support and protect you at work.
Key information you need to know
All government advice to the public on self-isolation and family quarantine applies equally to healthcare staff as you should not be put at higher risk than patients or the general public.
This includes advice for people with underlying health conditions, at risk groups due to age and pregnant women.
Healthcare staff, including bank staff and sub-contractors, who must be physically present at an NHS facility to carry out their duties, will receive full pay for any period in which they are required to self-isolate. Self-isolation will not count towards sickness absence triggers.
New guidance on NHS staff pay, terms and conditions during the COVID-19 pandemic is now available on the NHS Employers website for staff in England. Also our UNISON branch guide is a useful resource to help our activists to support and advise members.
There is limited capacity currently, but this is being scaled up rapidly to roll out testing for healthcare staff with priority for critical staff first. A test for immunity is also in rapid development. Advice has been issued to NHS Trusts in England on priority testing for certain groups of staff.
Healthcare staff whose work is critical to the COVID-19 response so they can’t keep children at home, will be prioritised for education provision.
The healthcare key worker list includes but is not limited to doctors, nurses, midwives, paramedics, other frontline health staff including volunteers; the support and specialist staff required to maintain the UK’s health sector.
Infection control and Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)
This guidance, newly updated (2 April) applies across the UK. The government has confirmed this is consistent with World Health Organisation protocols. It has been produced in response to UNISON listening to members’ concerns and putting pressure on the government to provide clear advice on the use of PPE across a broader range of healthcare settings. It sets out recommendations on what should be the minimum level of protection and emphasises the importance of local risk assessment to determine need.
This new guidance should help you feel more confident approaching your employer if you have concerns about PPE being provided. It is under constant review and UNISON will continue to listen to members’ concerns and take these straight to the government on their behalf. We have already flagged the need for more clarity over resuscitation protocols, and for instruction about management of unavoidable contact between staff in communal staff areas like locker rooms and kitchen facilities.
Staff working across the NHS may be required to treat patients displaying COVID-19 symptoms. One of the most common ways this virus can spread is directly from one person to another through coughs and sneezes.
Your employer must carry out a full risk assessment and provide you with all the specialist training and the PPE (gowns/aprons, masks, gloves, etc) that you need. The type of equipment you get will depend on the likelihood and risks of you getting the Covid-19 disease.
Protective equipment for those caring for patients who have COVID 19 symptoms
As a minimum, your employer should provide a fluid-resistant surgical mask, gloves, apron and eye protection if you are working within one metre of patient or if there’s any risk of splashing into the eyes.
Eye/face protection can be achieved using any one of the following:
- surgical mask with integrated visor
- full face shield/visor
- polycarbonate safety spectacles or equivalent
If you are working in an NHS high-risk unit, or where patients require the use of aerosol generating procedures, you should be wearing a filtering face piece (class 3) (FFP3) respirator. Full face shields should be considered for higher-risk settings or procedures.
We have raised concerns around PPE provision with NHS leaders and government ministers, who are working on addressing local shortages as quickly as possible. This includes a helpline for employers to raise supply issues.
Pregnant healthcare workers
The government issued “strong advice” on 16 March that pregnant women should work from home if possible. In addition, the government advised pregnant women to be particularly stringent about ‘social distancing’.
If you are pregnant and can work from home, you should. If you can’t work from home and work in a public-facing role that can be modified appropriately to minimise your exposure, this should be considered and discussed with your occupational health team or employer.
If you are directly employed by the NHS
If you are in your first or second trimester (less than 28 weeks pregnant), with no underlying health conditions, you should practice social distancing but can choose to continue to work in a public-facing role, provided the necessary precautions are taken – these include the use of personal protective equipment (PPE) and a risk assessment.
If you are in your third trimester (more than 28 weeks pregnant), or have an underlying health condition – such as heart or lung disease – you should work from home where possible, avoid contact with anyone with symptoms of coronavirus, and significantly reduce unnecessary social contact.
Section 3 of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) COVID-19 advice, outlines recommendations for pregnant healthcare workers.
Pregnant with a heart condition
If you fall into this category you should have received a letter from the government about “shielding”, which is a way of protecting very vulnerable people from the virus.
The government is strongly advising people in this category to stay at home at all times and avoid any face-to-face contact for a period of at least 12 weeks from the day you receive your letter.
Speak to your UNISON branch if you think your employer is not following the guidance.
Your employer must suspend you from work on full pay for as long as necessary to protect your health and safety or that of your baby. Your full pay should be based on your usual earnings, not pay based on your contractual hours.
You may have additional rights under the Equality Act 2010 if you are disabled as well as being pregnant.
If you are pregnant and also have a heart condition but you have not received the letter, contact your GP by phone.
Health care students
We have a separate page of advice for health care students who may be affected by the pandemic or going into work earlier than planned.
Retired members returning to work
The Nursing and Midwiferey Council and the HCPC have created temporary registers for Covid-19 so retired members, or others who have left the registers can return to work.
Pensions for retired returners
As a general rule – if you return to NHS employment while in receipt of your NHS pension – this will not be affected if you are already over your scheme’s Normal Pension Age at the point of returning. Or if you have incurred a reduction to your pension for drawing it early.
In addition, the government’s Coronavirus Bill contains measures which will allow recently retired healthcare professionals to return to work, or increase their hours, without any negative impact on their pension for the duration of the Covid-19 pandemic.
This is important as some retired NHS pensioners would otherwise be in danger of having their pension benefits reduced or suspended if they return to NHS employment. Typically those with Special Class and Mental Health Officer status who return to NHS employment prior to age 60.
NHS Pensions have a very helpful section on their website where you can find more information about returning to work after retirement from the NHS.
UNISON’s Professional Services Unit continues to operate as usual during the COVID-19 pandemic, ensuring we are there for members on a professional register. Due to travel restrictions, some regulators are making changes to usual procedures. This includes some hearings taking place via video conference.
Page last updated: 7 April, 09:20