The Department of Social Care has expressed concerns about social benefits for a long time Covid

The Department of Social Care has expressed concern over any decision to treat social benefits for long Covid differently from other chronic conditions.

Internal emails detail how welfare officials felt there would be ‘pressure’ to provide improved benefits to people who continued to suffer from Covid-19 symptoms long after being infected.

However, the department felt it would be unfair for long to treat Covid differently from other chronic illnesses that kept people out of work for long periods of time.

An email from their deputy general secretary, Rónán Hession, said: “At the moment there is a ten week limit on Covid sickness benefits – if people develop longer term conditions they will be paid at the under normal sickness benefits.

“In our view, this is in line with the aims of both schemes in that Covid Sick Pay is primarily intended to mitigate the spread of the virus, whereas Normal Sick Pay is the appropriate scheme to provide support from the income in case of illness.

However, he said the department needed to bear in mind that “there may well be pressure to deal with [long Covid] differently”.

A briefing paper on the long-term social welfare impacts of Covid-19 said the country had gone through an “info-epidemic” with an altered understanding of transmission and its impact. It included a caveat that ‘industry driven research’ could sway the evidence ‘in a certain direction’ when it comes to long Covid.

The journal says there are already “differences of opinion” within medicine about some long-term illnesses like fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue.

“Now just adding the history of Covid-19 prefixes can make them unchallenged,” the briefing said.

He said any payment for enhanced sickness benefits should be tied to “isolation and infection” as a proportionate response to the pandemic.

The briefing concluded: “Any continuation of medical incapacity for work must be made on a case-by-case basis according to medical evidence presented with payment in accordance with the scheme’s allowance.”

In other internal filings, the department questioned how to manage the long Covid illness, saying symptoms could sometimes linger for months, even in people who had not suffered severe infection with the virus in first place.

At one point, up to 5% of illness claims for people with Covid-19 lasted the full 10 weeks for which they were payable.

A briefing said: “Concerns have been raised about income support being reduced from €350 to €203 after 10 weeks, with some people saying they are struggling financially.

“However…they no longer pose a public health risk and have the same income support as anyone else who cannot go to work due to illness.”

He said some of the health problems suffered by long-time Covid patients, including heart problems, chronic fatigue and anxiety, were also suffered by others.

“It would not be fair to pay income support differently,” the briefing said.

He also said that if people were struggling very badly, then they could be eligible for payment of an additional social allowance to meet expenses they “could not reasonably be expected to” pay otherwise.

A statement from the Department of Social Protection said they were providing a range of income support to people who are unable to work due to illness or

“In the event that a person continues to be ill beyond 10 weeks, standard sick pay may be paid for an extended period, depending on the person’s continued eligibility,” the statement said.

“Sick Pay is the main income support payment for people who cannot report to work due to illness of any type and are covered by PRSI contributions.”

The department said all income supports were monitored to ensure they were “meeting their objectives” and any changes would have to be considered in a policy and budgetary context.

Joel C. Hicks