Covid

Long Covid teachers join forces to sue ministers

About 85 teachers in the UK have expressed an interest in joining the action

About 85 teachers in the UK have expressed an interest in joining the action

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Scores of teachers with “catastrophic” long Covid plan to launch a group legal challenge against the government, claiming pandemic policy failures led to them being infected at work.

But a top barrister representing medics in a similar case warned it would be difficult for teachers to prove they caught coronavirus in the classroom.

Long Covid Educators for Justice (LCEJ) wants compensation from the Department for Education for those who “lost their health, income and employment” after working on the frontline during the pandemic.

Emily Mason
Emily Mason

Founder Emily Mason said long Covid had been “catastrophic for people’s lives and careers”. Many had to leave the profession or take early retirement, leading to loss of income, she said.

“We were told to ‘go into schools, carry on keeping the country running, children have to be in school’. And we’re hung out to dry now when so many of us can’t work,” she said.

Teacher sickness absence skyrocketed by 56 per cent in the wake of the pandemic, DfE school workforce data for the 2021-2022 academic year previously revealed. 

More than 3.2 million working days were missed because of illness that year, up from around 2 million in pre-pandemic 2018-19.

Teachers show ‘highest likelihood’ of symptoms

It is not known how many teachers have long Covid.

But research published in the Occupational & Environmental Medicine journal in March last year found those working in teaching and education and social care “showed the highest likelihood of having long Covid symptoms”.

Mason added: “The policies and guidance schools were given weren’t enough to protect teachers, and schools weren’t given enough support to implement those policies.”

Mason said key failings included schools being kept open for too long at the start of the pandemic and that staff were advised not to wear face masks or personal protective equipment.

Office for National Statistics data last month estimated two million people in England and Scotland were experiencing self-reported long Covid – and three quarters of them said they were “adversely affected” daily.

Long-term symptoms include fatigue, shortness of breath, “brain fog” and heart palpitations, NHS guidance states.

The NASUWT union has been calling for long Covid to be legally recognised as a disability under the Equality Act 2010.

85 teachers interested in joining

Mason said she started the campaign after reading about a group litigation order (GLO) by healthcare workers blighted by long Covid which is currently going through the courts.

GLOs are a legal mechanism where people with a common interest band together to pursue compensation from the same defendant.

About 85 teachers in the UK have expressed an interest in joining the action. More than half are primary school teachers and about 80 per cent live in England.

The group is in the process of finding legal representation to build a case against the DfE.

But Kevin Digby, a partner at GA Solicitors, who represents some of the nearly 70 healthcare workers trying to sue the NHS and other employers, said there are key differences between the two cases.

“The hospitals were, quite literally, full of Covid-positive patients, the healthcare workers were being exposed to Covid and their employers knew this,” he said.

“The educator claims will be different as many of the pupils will not have been Covid positive.”

He suggested teachers’ claims may be stronger if they could show they were “having to deal with pupils exhibiting symptoms as part of their job, as a result of guidance provided”.

Action could centre on whether guidance was ‘negligent’

Government guidance for schools during the pandemic said wearing a face covering at work was “not recommended” in most circumstances.

But if a pupil fell ill with suspected Covid and needed care until they could go home, the supervising adult was advised to put on a fluid-resistant surgical face mask (FRSM).

If contact with the youngster was “necessary”, then disposable gloves, a disposable apron and a FRSM should be worn. It said eye protection might also be needed.

Digby said a key point in the GLO could centre on whether it was “negligent guidance to make a teacher stay with a sick pupil whilst wearing FRSM and a plastic pinny”.

He added such teachers should have been “adequately risk assessed” and “provided with adequate training and PPE”.

But teachers would need to prove that, on the balance of probabilities, they caught Covid at work.

Ryan Bradshaw, a partner at Leigh Day lawyers, added as claimants will need to “establish that the harm they have suffered results from a breach of a legal duty or obligation by the party being claimed against, evidence is likely to be key.”

A Government spokesperson said they “acted to save lives and livelihoods” throughout the pandemic.

“We have always said there are lessons to be learnt from the pandemic and we are committed to learning from the Covid Inquiry’s findings which will play a key role in informing the government’s planning and preparations for the future.”

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  1. Jonathan Meldrum

    The tort paper ‘covid and tort liability: the dog that didn’t bark’ explains well why these cases are thought hopeless by lawyers ie on causation. Fair enough take it forward but recognise its prospects. What might not be not hopeless is compelling workplaces to mitigate against covid in the future via enforcing the Health and Safety at Work Act in conjunction with the HSE and privately or via JR if necessary. I think there also may be a human rights argument that ministers and public health officials who recklessly misled and mislead the public about harms, risks, and mitigations, in a way likely to discourage behavioural and other mitigations, were & are acting unlawfully in doing so. That could give rise to a claim for these people. Although the compensation for that category of claim tends to be low, if successful it could have powerful future-facing legal effects in binding govt to communicate and even legislate differently.