Long-Covid care must not become a hard-to-access Cinderella service
Since long-Covid first came to light, those in need of further treatment and support have faced a postcode lottery for care. They must not be let down by this government again.
By the end of April there will be 83 assessment clinics for those suffering with the long-term impacts of coronavirus – so-called ‘Long Covid’. The head of the NHS, Sir Simon Stevens, also confirmed that there would be £24 million in extra funding made available for these clinics. It’s not a moment too soon. Long Covid is real and debilitating for those who experience it.
One of the worst things about Long Covid is we don’t yet fully understand it. There is a chilling range of symptoms. Most common are breathlessness and fatigue, but NICE lists 25 more - including palpitations and skin rashes. A major study out this month found that in the six months after a Covid diagnosis, a third of patients had a neurological or psychiatric diagnosis - including brain haemorrhages, Parkinson’s, dementia, anxiety, psychosis and substance misuse disorders. Around 13% had no previous diagnosis of a neurological or psychiatric problem.
This isn’t a problem that affects an isolated few – the National Institute for Health Research says that at least one in every ten people who’s had Covid will have at least one symptom for three months or more, with younger people and women more affected. And in March, the ONS estimated that there were over 1.1 million people in the UK with Long Covid. As long as the virus continues to circulate, more will be affected.
The focus has been on saving lives, but quality of life matters too
We can’t rely on existing NHS services to pick up this task of assessment and rehabilitation. The impacts of the pandemic on waiting lists are already monumental, with new figures showing there are 4.7million people waiting for treatment. The need for specialist, targeted support is therefore clear.
Since the condition first came to light, those in need of further treatment and support have faced a postcode lottery for care. There’s no data on Long Covid published centrally, but support groups have found between 70 and 90% of their members have struggled to get a referral to an assessment clinic. That cannot continue. So, rapidly expanded specialist services are urgently needed – not just for assessment, but for treatment, too.
The expanded services are therefore welcome, but we also need confirmation of long-term resources for the clinics. With NHS budgets stretched already by decades of underfunding and confronting a national crisis, long-Covid care cannot become a hard-to-access Cinderella service. On top of this, we need proper staffing plan to ensure the clinics can continue into the future – the existing workforce pressures in the NHS are all-too-well-known.
It’s understandable that throughout the pandemic the focus has been on saving lives, but quality of life matters too. The NIHR has found that 80 per cent of people living with long-Covid say it’s affected their ability to work and 36 per cent say it’s affecting their finances. So, whilst we look at new models of care and urgent research into therapeutics and prevention, we also need to look at better support for those who need to adapt their working conditions to remain in a job and income support for those who are unable to work at all.
Long Covid will be with us for years to come. For those who are experiencing it’s impact, we must ensure there are the services to support them for the long term too.
It’s clear that had Ministers made different decisions this year, many cases of Covid could have been prevented. Those who were infected as a result of government dither and delay - and who live with the debilitating impacts of that infection - must not be let down again.
Jonathan Ashworth is the Labour MP for Leicester South and shadow secretary for health and social care.