A BMA report warned that nearly a third of healthcare workers who contracted COVID-19 during the first wave of the pandemic were continuing to experience symptoms.
Polling by the association in February this year also found that 7.2% of doctors were facing COVID-19 symptoms that had lasted more than 12 weeks.
But with support payments for NHS staff with long COVID due to end imminently, the BMA is calling for a long-term package of support - and has warned that in the meantime plans to end payments must be pushed back. It said that primary care had been particularly affected by a lack of clarity and consistency around COVID-19 and long COVID sick pay rules.
BMA chair Professor Philip Banfield said: 'During the pandemic, the NHS introduced COVID-19 pay provisions across the UK to ensure that staff off sick with COVID-19 received full pay. In two weeks’ time, governments in England and Scotland will end enhanced sick pay.
'With normal contractual sick pay arrangements back in place, staff with long COVID might feel pressured to return to work before they have fully recovered. In the context of a worsening cost of living crisis, staff are having to ask themselves impossible questions. Do I return to work early, knowing that my symptoms could impact my performance, and by extension, patient safety, or do I sacrifice my income by staying at home?
'For those unable to return to work at all, many are worried about how they will continue to pay their mortgage, or if they can afford to even feed their families. Putting staff in this position is totally unacceptable.'
The BMA has called for improved support and a compensation scheme for doctors and other healthcare workers with long COVID, and has backed proposals for it to be classed as an occupational disease.
The BMA report also calls for more work to help health professionals identify and treat the condition in patients.
It said: ‘Primary care is often the first step in the patient pathway, so it is crucial that GPs are fully supported to understand the variable symptoms of long COVID, what support is available (including mental health support), and how to refer people to it.'
An estimated 1.8m people in the UK suffer from the condition and there remains a ‘significant burden of long-term illness’ from COVID-19, the report said. However, emerging evidence suggested that timely access to long COVID clinics was a postcode lottery, the report found.
It said that the government’s long COVID action plan proposals for patients to be referred to local one stop stops and mobile clinics for tests could relieve some pressure off GP practices if they are well implemented. But it stressed that mobile clinics would need to be truly multidisciplinary and properly resourced.
Dr David Strain, chair of the board of science at the BMA, said: ‘Government might want to act like the pandemic is over, but it’s not, and the consequences of ignoring long COVID are severe. If we don’t tackle increasing staff absences, serious harm will be done to the health service, which is already dangerously understaffed. The NHS is the people who work in it and looking after them is central to it functioning properly.’
A government spokesperson said: 'As we are living with COVID-19, the temporary non-contractual guidance that was put in place at the height of the pandemic has been withdrawn, and staff who are on COVID-19 sickness pay will move back to the normal arrangements.
'This provides generous support for NHS staff with up to six months full pay and six months half pay, depending on length of service.'