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Our View: Clampdown badly needed on sick-leave abuse

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EVERY once in a while we hear about a government decision to tackle the abuses of sick leave in the public sector. Despite these decisions, the abuses, which cause serious problems to the operation of public services, at significant cost to the taxpayer, the problem seem to persist. They are the reason for the need of so many substitute teachers at state schools and a contributory factor to hospital waiting lists.

Now there is also a problem in the police and the prisons. On Wednesday justice minister Ionas Nicolaou announced had called a meeting, in co-operation with the auditor-general to explore measures and procedures for dealing with the abuses of sick leave in the police, the prisons and other departments of his ministry. He said he was determined to stop this selfish practice which caused operational weaknesses and penalised conscientious workers who ended up having to work longer hours to cover the unjustified absences.

It was unacceptable for a warden on duty at the weekend at the prisons to call the night before and claim he was sick forcing someone, who had been off, to cover for him said Nicolaou. And to add insult to injury he would bring a doctor’s note giving him several weeks’ sick leave. The minister also mentioned the role of the “irresponsible” doctor, would even go as far as to tell the ministry when an employee should work. “Doctors cannot define the duties that an employee could perform, telling us he should work only morning hours, only at a specific place and perform specific duties,” said Nicolaou on Wednesday.

Interestingly, last February, the education ministry also announced a tightening of procedures for granting sick leave. One of the main reasons for sick leave among teachers was to avoid transfer to another school, usually in a village or another town. In many such instances, a doctor would sign off bogus certificates, claiming the teacher was unable to drive a long distance away. To tackle the problem the education ministry set up a medical council to evaluate sick leave, but whether it worked we do not know.

Part of the problem is dishonest doctors totally lacking in professional integrity. For the fee of a routine check-up a doctor would give a sick leave certificate for a fortnight to a patient. If he or she does not the patient would go to a doctor that would oblige, and there a many. The government has tried to counter this by setting up medical councils but these do not seem to be very effective. Nicolaou attributed this to legal distortions and gaps in procedures which had been exploited by public employees.

This is the government’s fault. It should remove the legal distortions and tighten all procedures; it should also, in association with the Medical Association black-list doctors, found to have been signing bogus sick leave certificates (after the medical council reverses the decision), and refuse to accept their certificates. And the unions should not be consulted when the changes are made, because they would argue that abusing sick leave was worker’s conquest that should not be taken away.

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