Tackling long Covid is vital to equip our economy for the challenges ahead
Like many others across the country and indeed the world, I woke up last month to the news that President Vladimir Putin had launched his barbaric assault on a free and sovereign nation.
Images of families sheltering in metro stations have been followed by devastating explosions, a creeping death toll and Europe’s largest refugee crisis since the Second World War.
Almost 80 years after we said “never again”, President Putin has brought war back to Europe. It was right that this government was fast to offer military support and assistance to Ukraine, so much so that President Zelenskyy has acknowledged the UK as a vital ally.
But with international turmoil comes domestic uncertainty, and as the Chancellor himself said recently, there will be economic ramifications in the months ahead. It was right to impose financial sanctions on Russia by halting exports of oil and gas, despite the impact we knew it would have on people at home. The British people have never shied away from shouldering the burden if it means striving for peace.
Household bills are already rising, and the war in Ukraine will make it worse. Having already seen oil pushed to its highest price for almost 14 years, we don’t yet know how the disruption of wheat supply from Ukraine might further impact supermarket prices. This is something that ordinary people in the UK will feel acutely, and while the government has risen to the international crisis, our domestic economic challenges have not magically disappeared.
We must not let the justified focus on Russia come at the expense of focus on long Covid
To face them, we need our country firing on all cylinders and that is why we should remain concerned about the quiet long Covid pandemic in the UK today.
For those unfamiliar, long Covid is an often-debilitating condition with extreme fatigue, shortness of breath and difficulty concentrating reported as the most common symptoms.
Recent data from the ONS estimates that 1.5 million people are currently living with the condition, which is roughly 2.4 per cent of the UK population. With a high rate of infection and hospitalisations again on the rise, it is likely we will see even more cases of long Covid in the future. Present long Covid case numbers have resulted in significant staff absences, with far-reaching consequences for our economy and vital public services.
Recent research conducted by the APPG on Coronavirus suggests that almost two million days were lost to healthcare workers being unable to work due to long Covid from March 2020 to September 2021. As an NHS doctor who worked on the frontline throughout the pandemic, I know just how important it is to have a fit and healthy workforce during a crisis. Which is why I’m pleased to support the Backbench Business Debate on the impact of long Covid on the workforce on Thursday.
But it’s not just the NHS that has felt the strain of this debilitating condition. Last month, a survey found that a quarter of UK employers cited long Covid as one of the main causes of long-term sickness absence among their staff. We know things are bad now, but we have to consider that this could get even worse as the virus spreads through the population again.
Preliminary findings supervised by professors at Queen Mary University concluded that becoming infected with Covid also increases the risk of economic hardship, especially if the individual develops long Covid.
But the cost of living won’t just rise for the individual. The more people in the workforce develop long Covid, the more Britain’s economic output will suffer, meaning less money for the public purse. It’s vital now, then, that we also rise to this moment. We must not let the justified focus on Russia come at the expense of focus on long Covid.
We cannot afford to neglect this condition any longer. The APPG has long called for the government to recognise the condition as an occupational disease, produce guidelines for employers and offer support to key workers with the condition. But that is no longer enough.
We are sleepwalking into yet another healthcare and economic crisis, and if we don’t wake up soon, we’ll be fighting a battle on both fronts.
Now is the time to introduce a comprehensive package, with new funds to conduct research for the development of new treatments, as outlined in the APPG’s new report into long Covid. Without them, those living with long Covid, including frontline workers who protected this country during the pandemic, are being left to find medical care on their own.
I have heard of British healthcare workers moving abroad in search of help, and in some cases even spending thousands of pounds to do so. This anguish is not sustainable. As our response transitions from pandemic to endemic, then learning to live with Covid means living with long Covid too. So, we must increase resources into making treatments available in the UK.
Not only is this the right thing to do, it’s also the smart thing to do. The best thing we can do right now to help people living with long Covid in the UK, while also standing our ground against Putin, is to ensure we have the means to do both.
Dr Daniel Poulter is the Conservative MP for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich and vice-chair of the APPG on Coronavirus.
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