More Needs to be Done to Address the Effects of Long Covid

More needs to be done to address the effect long COVID is placing on people’s health and health services in Northern Ireland.

The call comes as BMA publishes its new report ‘Addressing the health challenge of long COVID’. The report states that while vaccines reduce the likelihood of developing long COVID, there remains a ‘significant burden of long-term illness’ from COVID-19, which is likely to increase as more people contract the virus. This in turn will heap more strain on already severely under pressure health services.

The report calls for immediate action to help improve the understanding, treatment, care and support of people with long COVID across the UK, including:

1. Detailed data collection on the prevalence and presentation of long COVID
2. Increased funding for research and infrastructure
3. Preventing long COVID in children
4. Support for health professionals to identify and treat long COVID
5. Funding and resources to establish multidisciplinary services
6. Improved financial and wider support for people unable to work due to long COVID
7. Improved support and compensation scheme for doctors and health care workers who have long COVID.

From January 2022 to June 2022, ONS figures showed a sharp increase in prevalence of self-reported long COVID in the UK, from 1.5 million to two million people. Of these, many are frontline healthcare workers who, because of the debilitating symptoms of long COVID, which vary from fatigue through to heart palpitations, are unable to work.

Dr Tom Black, chair of BMA’s Northern Ireland Council, said:
“This report makes for worrying reading. The more prevalent long COVID becomes, the more of a risk it poses not only to the health of the Northern Ireland population, but also the ability of our health service to function properly, a service that is already under immense pressure.

“Doctors and health service staff are at higher risk of getting COVID through the course of their work. This means needing to take sick leave to prevent the spread of infection and many developing the symptoms of long COVID. This exacerbates the current health service workforce crisis as colleagues have to cover the resulting staffing gaps when delivering care to the most sick and vulnerable in society.”

Dr Black said more needed to be done to support doctors and frontline healthcare workers with long COVID.

“It can be incredibly difficult for people with symptoms of long COVID to carry on working to full capacity, or even at all. In light of the current workforce crisis, the Department of Health must do all it can to make sure the right support is in place for frontline health service staff living with the long-term, debilitating impacts of having caught COVID-19 in the course of their work. That includes adjustments to help them return to work, an adequate compensation scheme and the extension of COVID-19 sick pay provisions.”

The report also calls for a “more consistent provision of long COVID care” so that people do not have to wait unacceptably long times to access treatment. In Northern Ireland some patients have reported waiting up to 36 weeks for an appointment at a long COVID clinic. In addition, of more than 1,900 people referred to the clinics in Northern Ireland, just over 600 had had an appointment by June 2022.

“Increased funding and independent workforce planning will be, as with all health services, the key to their success and will go some way to ensuring there is less variation in waiting times for treatment,” said Dr Black.