22 Feb 2022

Long Covid: Concern over support as Air NZ refuses cover to ex-employee

2:18 pm on 22 February 2022

A Long Covid sufferer made redundant by Air New Zealand says the company has failed in its role as an accredited ACC employer after being turned down for personal injury cover.

Air New Zealand plane.

An Air NZ plane. File photo Photo: Supplied / Air NZ

Former cabin crew member Daniel Lavender said his application for cover wasn't helped by a lack of medical knowledge among doctors and specialists about his post-viral condition.

Advocates now fear others will face similar problems when seeking financial support as an expected wave of post-viral illnesses hits New Zealand this year due to an increase in Covid-19 infections.

Lavender lost his job just weeks after testing positive for Covid-19 while on a tour of duty in Shanghai on 22 November, 2020.

The Auckland man said he had openly criticised "the level of cross-contamination" when surveillance testing was carried on arrival at Shanghai Airport the week before, the period he believed he came into contact with the virus. Staff and passengers from other aircraft had been grouped together as they lined closely to get swabbed, he said.

Lavender was repatriated from China and remained at Auckland's Jett Park managed-isolation facility for two weeks before returning to work.

The company had informed him of redundancy on 29 October, along with other staff, which came into effect on 9 December, 2020.

The redundancies were part of ongoing cost-cutting measures after the closure of international borders drastically limited flights. Air New Zealand has also been drawing from a government bailout package.

Lavender said symptoms progressed after losing his job, which included severe brain fog, fatigue, heart palpations, autonomic dysfunction, eye problems, lack of smell and taste, and numerous other issues.

"They effectively just threw me out and I had to spend my redundancy [money] to survive, because I was obviously still suffering the effects of Long Covid and couldn't work," he said.

"They used redundancy to wash their hands of me and not offer any ongoing help."

Lavender put in a claim for personal injury to Air New Zealand last year.

The company is part of ACC's Accredited Employer Programme, which means it has financial responsibility for its employees' work-related personal injury claims, makes decisions on whether claims are successful, and pays all claim costs of support, treatment and rehabilitation. Companies in the scheme in return receive a reduction in work account levies of up to 90 percent.

Air New Zealand declined cover under section 26 of the Accident Compensation Act 2001.

A company letter sent to Lavender in December 2021 stated: "This is because for a claim to acceptable under the legislation there is a requirement for there to be a specific injury.

"The information contained in the medical reports obtained by your doctors do not confirm that your medical issues are directly caused by Covid-19 and there is no confirmation that there is any actual physical injury that satisfies the legislation for a coverable ACC injury claim."

Lavender believed the company was simply seeking to avoid responsibility.

"Long Covid symptoms play conveniently into their hands, because these can all be caused by a myriad of things and so me having Covid is just seen as a coincidence. They didn't want it on the books.

"They're not even arguing that I didn't get it at work... There were no links in my genome-sequencing to New Zealand, as they were initially trying to say - saying I caught it in the community and I took it to work. When genome sequencing proved I got it in China, they said, 'yeah, okay, but you've got no injury'.

"They are self-accredited, so there's no incentive for them to admit anything, because it comes out of their pocket. I feel ACC may have treated me differently."

Lavender decided not to request a formal review of the decision, believing the company wasn't interested in redress. He also wanted to avoid further stress and focus on his mental and physical health.

ACC figures, released to the Nurses Society last year, showed there were 12 claims for Covid-19-related compensation. These included nine nurses who received payouts after picking up the virus at work.

ACC chief operating officer Gabrielle O'Connor told RNZ: "We provide cover to people with Covid-19 where there is sufficient evidence the person contracted the virus while in the workplace."

Air New Zealand maintained it made the correct call by declining Lavender's cover.

"Without a doubt, we take being a self-accredited ACC provider incredibly seriously. When any of our employees put forward ACC claims, we take advice from the ACC Technical Claims team," the company said.

A statement released to RNZ acknowledged also there were concerns about how Lavender's crew had been tested during the period before his positive Covid-19 result.

"Just prior to Daniel testing positive for Covid-19, we were informed that the local authorities were changing the airport process from a separate system, to one that mixed aircrew and passengers. We worked through a number of avenues to raise this with the local authorities and requested it to be changed for the safety of our crew.

Daniel Lavender

Daniel Lavender Photo: Supplied/Ray White

"Keeping our employees safe throughout this pandemic has been incredibly important to us. When employees have contracted Covid on duty, our medical team, wellbeing team and their leaders have been in regular contact with individuals, and have offered support where they can.

"Our Chief Medical Officer personally spoke with Daniel on multiple occasions to answer questions and provide support while in MIQ and after his release. If employees have any concerns and want to be checked over by specialists, our medical team is there to help arrange these, and this was done in this particular case.

"Auckland Regional Public Health Services was responsible for investigating the source of the infection. As part of the health investigation, it is normal protocol to check all possible sources, which was managed by ARPHS. Our medical team work closely with Public Health officials to gather relevant information. In this case, it was quickly established that the infection was picked up offshore."

It also said the legal rules of the E tū collective agreement had been observed when making him redundant.

Lack of medical help

Dealing with doctors hadn't helped his case, Lavender said.

He was diagnosed with thyroiditis by an endocrinologist, a condition that largely resolved by March 2021. The specialist's report to his GP didn't link the condition to Long Covid. In a text message to Lavender, the specialist said, "the connection was possible, but impossible to confirm".

Studies have found deranged thyroid function is associated with Covid-19 infection.

"There's been no medical support," Lavender said. "Part of the reason cover was rejected was because there was no medical history... The medical profession are going in blind and don't want to link anything. They try to deal with the symptoms you have, but just put it down to something else. I know how I used to feel pre-Covid, to how I feel now."

Need for urgent action - advocate

Long Covid Support advocate Jenene Crossan said there was an urgent need for the government to remove any impediments in the way of diagnosis and financial support.

She said a government-funded longitudinal study awarded to Victoria University, which launched last week, would provide research to government to make informed policy decisions, but immediate action was also needed.

"I worry that it will take some time to see the outcomes flow through to the individuals in dire need right now," she said.

"There needs to be a balance of 'finding out more' and 'supporting where we can', as there is no question that Long Covid exists and that world-wide governments are supporting their people who have it.

"The disconnection between involved parties is obvious in this case in particular, and mirrors the experience many of our group are finding. There is not enough advice coming from the Ministry of Heath to aid decisions that need to be made by GPs, employers and organisations to critically support those impacted by Covid-19.

"The reality is those suffering from Long Covid in Aotearoa need help immediately and as that group grows in numbers, which is inevitable, there will be an economic reality that quickly follows and much hardship felt by those impacted by the ongoing health ramifications of Covid-19," Crossan said.

"Easing their anxiety and mental anguish by making the processes for financial assistance smoother would go a long way to providing them the critical space they need to get well again."

RNZ understands Waitematā District Health Board is carrying out work looking at the needs of Long Covid patients in the community. It is unclear how many other DHBs are doing the same.

"It has been very hard to get Long Covid listed in the DHB health pathways and there is no central way to do that, with the reality of fractured DHB networks, and we hear often from people who still find their GPs dismiss them," Crossan said.

"That is mind boggling, given the amount of reporting there has been on Long Covid and it strikes me that there is a process piece missing and it requires the Ministry [of Health] to step into fast track that."

When asked what it was doing to equip doctors to diagnose Long Covid and avoid hardship for sufferers seeking support, the Ministry of Health said: "New evidence around Long Covid-19 continues to evolve around the globe and the Ministry is continuing to watch developments very closely. Part of that evidence includes the long-term health impacts of long Covid-19.

"The Ministry has previously published guidelines around the rehabilitation for people after an acute Covid infection.

"The purpose of this document is to highlight the complexity and potential long-term needs of people recovering from Covid-19 and to demonstrate the importance of the allied, scientific and technical workforce in reducing the short and long-term health and wellbeing implications of Covid-19 infection.

"We are looking to update this to take into account Long Covid. We have also completed a comprehensive literature review on the topic and are aiming to engage an expert advisory group to translate this into guidance in our context. Any current or future guidance has been or will be readily available for all health professionals to utilise."

The Ministry said it was focusing on early interventions to rehabilitate those with Covid-19, but added the long-term physiological and psychological effects of the virus were unknown.

Medical reports also remain pivotal in determining whether Long Covid sufferers receive Jobseeker Support, Supported Living Payment, and Disability Allowance.

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Social Development said any additional financial support targeted at people who developed Long Covid would be a decision for the government.