SIPTU has criticised the manner in which the HSE's offer to extend a special payment scheme for healthcare workers suffering from long Covid was communicated to union representatives.

The Special Leave with Pay scheme, which was introduced for public service workers at the start of the pandemic, ended yesterday.

Last night, unions received an updated proposal from the HSE detailing the new terms of the scheme, which will only apply for healthcare workers.

In a statement to RTÉ’s Saturday with Katie Hannon programme, the Department of Health said: "A scheme has been proposed for eligible public health service workers and an offer of engagement has been made to the staff representative bodies in this regard.

"It would be inappropriate to comment any further at present."

Speaking on the same programme, SIPTU Health Division Organiser Kevin Figgis said it was unacceptable that the offer had been received late on the day that the original scheme expired.

He said unions had sought engagement on the issue since March, but they had been refused.

Mr Figgis said that those affected where "very vulnerable, very sick healthcare workers", who were infected "undertaking their duty in the health service".

It is thought more than 200 nurses and healthcare workers have been diagnosed with long Covid.

Mr Figgis also questioned the 12-month timing of the scheme when the long-term effects of long Covid were still to be determined.

"Unions will have to go through the proposal with a fine-tooth comb," he said.

"There are a lot of terms and conditions in it. They are basically saying a temporary scheme would replace the old scheme.

"They are saying it would be for a period of 12 months and it would be similar in line with other schemes."

'Nothing short of inexcusable'

Commenting on the proposals the Irish Nurses and Midwives Association said what is being put forward "does not go far enough."

An INMO spokesperson said: "Healthcare workers with long Covid went to work and contracted Covid when there were very few protections available to them.

"Their illness should be treated as nothing less than a workplace injury.

"The INMO is concerned that no dialogue on an occupational injury scheme has taken place despite willingness from healthcare unions.

"For the Government and the HSE to try to come up with a solution now after the scheme that was in place has expired is nothing short of inexcusable.

"As a matter of urgency, the HSE, Department of Health and Department of Public Expenditure should suspend their cessation of the Special Leave with Pay pending discussions between healthcare unions and the employer.

"Anything less than an occupational injury scheme for healthcare workers with long Covid will be unacceptable."

An association representing garda sergeants and inspectors has called for the new scheme to be extended to all public sector workers.

AGSI Ireland General Secretary Antoinette Cunningham said: "AGSI have been made aware of the Government decision to cease the SLWP for those members who have contracted 'long Covid' from 1 July.

"This is a decision which we do not agree with.

"Our members responded proactively to all duties asked of them during the Covid-19 crisis and it is unfair that sergeants and inspectors will now be financially impacted through no fault of their own and because of this decision.

"If special arrangements are being made for other sectors we would seek similar application of those arrangements to AGSI members also."

Criticism at lack of engagement

Speaking on the same programme, Minister of State and Green Party TD Malcolm Noonan said it was "really unfortunate that it has taken to the 11th hour" for the offer to be made.

He said: "I think it is really important … that engagement and clarification is absolutely essential now. I think it is critically important now that the HSE engage in a constructive way now to try to resolve this."

The Opposition has called for clarity on the scheme and slammed the treatment of workers with long Covid.

Sinn Féin's housing spokesperson Eoin Ó Broin called for the Government to clarify if those in receipt of the payment would continue to receive it under the new scheme.

He said: "These workers didn't just go the extra mile, they put their lives on the line."

Social Democrats co-leader Róisín Shortall said it was an "appalling way to treat frontline essential workers".

"It is unforgivable that the Government hasn’t engaged with the unions," she said. "This has been going on for several months now. Workers have just been ignored."

In a statement last night, Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly said the Government recognised the work of healthcare workers during the pandemic.

He said: "They have gone beyond the call of duty, working in frontline Covid-19 clinically exposed environments, treating Covid-19 positive patients.

"Many of those frontline public health sector workers contracted Covid-19 and still remain suffering from long Covid.

"I want to ensure that eligible frontline healthcare workers, working through the most challenging phases of the pandemic, and who remain absent from the workplace on a long-term basis, are assisted and do not experience a cliff-edge in respect of the change to Special Leave With Pay.

"I hope the engagement with the representative bodies can be concluded quickly."