Heather Humphreys opposed Covid-19 designation for social welfare purposes

Minister for Social Protection said Ireland should not follow lead of nearly all EU states giving disease special status under employment law, correspondence shows

A Government Minister vigorously opposed making Covid-19 an occupational illness, saying it would be impossible to figure out whether somebody had contracted the disease in work or not.

In discussions with the Department of Health, Minister for Social Protection Heather Humphreys said Ireland should not follow the lead of nearly all European Union states in giving Covid-19 special status under employment law.

The European Commission had recommended special recognition for the illness especially when it came to the health and caring sectors. Yet Ms Humphreys said people who could not attend work because of Covid-19 already had access to the full range of supports for workers who were sick, including those with other transmissible diseases.

A letter to Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly last July said that up to now a scheme for occupational illness had been used only in more unusual cases where a person had suffered injuries including, for example, loss of a limb or an eye. Ms Humphreys said it was also available in cases where a person contracted a disease that was rare. She wrote: “For example, anthrax is prescribed for occupations in which the person has contact with infected animals or animal products.”

READ MORE

Ms Humphreys said that given widespread community transmission of Covid-19 it was “unclear” to her how it could be proven “with reasonable certainty” as to whether a person had got sick in work or not. She wrote: “I am also mindful that many categories of workers were deemed essential during the pandemic. We estimate that, even at the height of the restrictions on movement, in excess of one million workers continued to work.

“The issue of designating a disease as an occupational illness for social welfare purposes extends beyond the health and care sectors into other sectors.”

Ms Humphreys said that if the department was worried about the impact of Covid-19 on health and care workers, especially those suffering from long Covid, Mr Donnelly could instead look at “a targeted sectoral measure”.

In a response in September, Mr Donnelly said he was concerned that Ireland would now be an “outlier” as it was one of only two EU states that had not taken steps to recognise Covid-19 as an occupational illness. He said frontline workers in the health sector had to work directly with Covid-19 positive patients and workplace transmission “could be assumed” in those circumstances.

Mr Donnelly wrote: “I ask that you reconsider the matter in the context of bringing Ireland into line with the other member states who have already adopted the recommendation in one form or another.”

In another letter last October, Ms Humphreys said she “could not agree” that workplace transmission could be presumed at a time when Covid-19 infection rates were low. She again said the Department of Health should look to targeted support with a possible extension of a temporary scheme of paid leave for public-sector health employees.

In a short response in November, Mr Donnelly accepted her decision.

He wrote: “While I remain concerned that Ireland remains one of only two EU member states who have not implemented the recommendation, I note the rationale set out in your letter and acknowledge same.”