COVID-19 advice for health workers

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.

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.

COVID-19 Immunisation of NHS staff

Health workers will soon be offered access to vaccines against COVID-19, once permission for their use has been authorised by the UK Medicines Agency (the MRHA).  Guidance has been sent to UNISON Health branches about the vaccination programme. To find out more about plans to vaccinate staff in your work place speak to your local UNISON branch.

Health workers are being offered access to vaccines against COVID-19, following authorisation of their use now granted by the UK Medicines Agency (the MRHA).  Guidance has been sent to UNISON Health branches about the vaccination programme.
To find out more about plans to vaccinate staff in your workplace, speak to your local UNISON branch.

See our page on Immunisation of NHS Staff for more about the vaccine programme and links to useful resources. Development of the programme is still ongoing so check back regularly for any further updates.

Pay

NHS 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. Covid-related sickness absence should be paid at full pay and will not count towards sickness absence triggers. Neither will self-isolation.

Guidance on NHS staff pay, terms and conditions during the COVID-19 pandemic is available on the NHS Employers website for staff in England and is accompanied by regularly updated FAQs. Also, the UNISON branch guide (PDF) is a useful resource to help our activists support and advise members.

For NHS staff in Scotland, general pay and conditions advice is available, as well as advice on overtime payments for staff in bands 8 and 9 and senior manager grades. Other specific guidance for staff working in the devolved nations:

Coronavirus testing

NHS workers and those in their household with coronavirus symptoms can be tested for the virus.

Guidance on testing, including how to book your test on gov.uk

Clinically vulnerable NHS staff who are shielding

We have been asking for clarification about clinically vulnerable NHS staff who are shielding, and whether they can return to work after having the vaccine.

The advice from NHS England and NHS Improvement is to recommend a precautionary approach. Irrespective of whether they have been vaccinated in accordance with national guidelines, those who are shielding are advised to continue to do so.

This will remain under review, with NHS Employers keeping in contact with colleagues at NHS England and NHS Improvement and PHE as the guidance develops.

Wellbeing helpline and support for NHS staff

In the current climate of increased pressures and demands on health care staff, the NHS has launched a confidential helpline available from 7am to 11pm seven days a week, as well as free access to a range of wellbeing apps.

All NHS staff can call 0300 131 7000 or text FRONTLINE to 85258 to get help, support and advice.

Offers and discounts for NHS staff

NHS England has published an approved list of companies offering support to NHS staff during the pandemic, including a range of discounted products and services, and details of dedicated supermarket shopping times.

Infection control and Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)

Specific guidance for infection prevention and control in healthcare settings from gov.uk

This guidance applies across the UK. The government has confirmed this is consistent with World Health Organisation protocols after we put 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.

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

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.

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 to address local shortages as quickly as possible. This includes a helpline for employers to raise supply issues.

The Nursing & Midwifery Council has issued a statement about how it expects registrants to respond to situations arising from problems with PPE. The Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC) has also published guidance to support its registrants.

Read more about Coronavirus and PPE

PPE advice for ambulance staff

Redeployment

In the response to coronavirus many staff have been working in different environments or doing different roles.

Where these continue we expect them to be voluntary and for you to be consulted over changes to the way you work, both individually and collectively through your trade union.

We also expect that you should receive the correct training and induction to work in environments you are unfamiliar with.

HCPC statement

The HCPC have provided detailed guidance on registrants’ scope of practice, getting training and support and raising concerns.

Read the statement in full

Free visa extensions for overseas health and care workers

Following representation from UNISON and pressure across the service, the Home Secretary announced on 29 April that free visa extensions will be granted to overseas health and care workers. Those with visas due to expire before 1 October 2020 will receive an automatic one-year extension. This will apply to staff in the NHS and independent sector and will include their family members.

The government also confirmed that family members and dependants of healthcare workers who sadly pass away as result of contracting the virus will be offered indefinite leave to remain.

Read the government announcement

Pregnant healthcare workers

The government has issued “strong advice” that pregnant women should work from home if possible. In addition, the government advised pregnant women to be particularly stringent about ‘social distancing’.  

Read the government guidance on 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  

Read our general advice here

NHS employers should do everything possible to maintain the health of their pregnant employees. The central aspect of this protection is based on risk assessment of each individual pregnant worker’s working environment and the role they play. Where risks can’t be removed and suitable alternative work can’t be offered then you should be suspended on full paid leave for as long as necessary to protect the health and safety of you and your unborn child.

If you are in your first or second trimester (less than 28 weeks pregnant), with no underlying health conditions, you should practice social distancing and work from home if possible. You can only continue to work in a public-facing role, provided there has been a risk assessment and the necessary precautions are taken – these include the use of personal protective equipment (PPE).

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 must not be deployed in roles where you are working with patients/public. You should be supported to work from home where possible.

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.

Black staff and COVID-19

UNISON is concerned about the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on Black staff in the NHS. We have produced advice for all health branches in supporting Black members to get risk assessed. If you need more information please contact your branch.

Read more about our advice for branches

Public Health England has produced a report exploring the impact of COVID-19 on the general population. The disparities report shows action is needed to reduce the confirmed disproportionate impact of COVID-19 for Black people. UNISON is therefore calling on the government to do all it can to protect those who are more at risk. Read our full press release on the report.

Read the Public Health England report

NHS England’s advice on risk assessments 

It is clear that we need to involve our Black members in discussions around the wider issues of racism the pandemic is revealing.

So, UNISON’s health team has made a film to start that discussion. The film features Yvonne Coghill, Director of the NHS Workforce Race Equality Standard programme and Kebba Manneh, chair of our National Black Members Committee.

Watch the video

Registered professionals

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.

Click here for an update from UNISON’s Professional Services Unit

Page last updated: 26 January 16:35

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Resources