Lost jobs, lost income, debilitating symptoms that render even the most mundane tasks near-impossible, and huge barriers to accessing treatment: these are the repeated stories of UK doctors living with Long Covid, in response to a major survey from the BMA.
Carried out in partnership with the support group Long Covid Doctors for Action, it is the first comprehensive survey of doctors with post-acute Covid health complications (often referred to as ‘Long Covid’). More than 600 doctors suffering the continuing effects of Covid-19 were asked about the impact the condition is having on their health, daily lives, employment and finances.
In a report the findings paint a stark picture of the devastating impact Long Covid is having on this group of people who were doing their job during the pandemic and deserved to be better protected – and for whom many feel completely let down by a system that they say has turned its back on them.
Key findings include:
- Doctors reported a wide range of symptoms, including fatigue, headaches, muscular pain, nerve damage, joint pain, ongoing respiratory problems and many more.
- Around 60% of doctors told the BMA that post-acute Covid ill health has impacted on their ability to carry out day-to-day activities on a regular basis;
- Almost one in five respondents (18%) reported that they were now unable to work due to their post-acute Covid ill-health;
- Less than one in three (31%) doctors said they were working full-time, compared to more than half (57%) before the onset of their illness;
- Nearly half (48%) said they have experienced some form of loss of earnings as a result of post-acute Covid;
- 54% of respondents acquired Covid-19 during the first wave of the pandemic in 2020, and 77% of these believed that they contracted Covid -19 in the workplace;
- A small minority of doctors had access to respiratory protective equipment (RPE) around the time that they contracted Covid-19, with only 11% having access to an FFP2 respirator and 16% an FFP3 respirator;
- More than 65% of doctors responding said their post-acute Covid symptoms had not been investigated thoroughly and effectively by an NHS long Covid clinic or centre. And almost half of doctors reported not even being referred to an NHS long Covid clinic at all.
At a time when health services face huge staff shortages, the loss of doctors from the workforce because they were not adequately protected has serious implications for the ability of the NHS to meet patient demand and ensure safe patient care.
For those well enough to return to work, the BMA says that the Government and employers not only have a moral duty to support them, but failing to do so risks making staffing problems worse.
The BMA says there must be better protection for healthcare workers, who remain at risk, ensuring adequate workplace risk assessment, as well as infection prevention and control processes in healthcare settings, against airborne transmission of Covid-19 and other pathogens. This means providing clean air everywhere in healthcare, by improved ventilation and air filtration and the provision of respiratory protective equipment (RPE).
The BMA report outlines a number of key asks, including:
- Financial support for doctors and healthcare staff with post-acute Covid;
- Post-acute Covid to be recognised as an occupational disease in healthcare workers, with a definition that covers all of the debilitating disease’s symptoms;
- Improved access to physical and mental health services to aid comprehensive assessment, appropriate investigations and treatment;
- Greater workplace protection for healthcare staff risking their lives for others;
- Better support for post-acute Covid sufferers to return to work safely if they can, including a flexible approach to the use of workplace adjustments.
Professor David Strain, BMA board of science chair, said: “We know that throughout the pandemic Covid-19 had a profound and often tragic impact on healthcare workers, but now this report and the heart-breaking accounts within it lay bare the debilitating effect that the virus continues to have on those doctors living with long-term symptoms.
“Contrary to what some may associate with the term ‘Long Covid’, these doctors are not just ‘a bit tired’, nor are they ‘withdrawn due to the isolation of lockdowns’. They are living with a range of serious health conditions caused by their initial Covid-19 infection, most likely caught while they were caring for others on the front line.
“Many describe not being able to do basic daily tasks like brushing their hair, cooking for their children or the basic arithmetic required to pay for items in shops, let alone go to work as a doctor with gruelling hours, and frequent complex decision-making that patients’ safety hinges on.
“Even within the medical community, it’s clear from the survey findings that there needs to be much more awareness of the range of symptoms that Long Covid encompasses, and far better availability of specialist care and support for those living with it.”
Professor Raymond Agius, BMA occupational medicine committee co-chair, said: “During the Covid-19 pandemic, doctors were left exposed and unprotected at work. They often did not have access to the right PPE. In particular many doctors were denied effective Respiratory Protective Equipment (RPE) – ie respirators which would have considerably reduced their risk of contracting this airborne disease. Too many risk assessments of workplaces and especially of vulnerable doctors were not undertaken.
“This report underlines the devastating consequences of this lack of protection. Doctors still living with continuing symptoms have once again been left at risk with little to no support from the system that they gave so much to.
“Those well enough to return to work need support in doing so, while those who are still too sick, need adequate financial compensation to ensure they are not driven to bankruptcy by an illness they caught in the line of duty.
“Those doctors who may never work again due to the long-term effects of Covid are a huge loss to the workforce when we can least afford it.
“The Government has a moral duty to look after healthcare staff who were put at risk throughout the pandemic as well as to ensure they are never put in the same position again.”
Dr Kelly Fearnley, Long Covid Doctors for Action chair, said:“From the start of this pandemic, UK healthcare workers have been risking their lives and health caring for Covid patients without adequate protection. A significant number are now disabled following preventable occupational exposure to SARS-CoV-2 and are being managed out of the door with no support system in place and without means to financially support themselves and their families. Not only have they lost their health and independence, they have lost their careers and livelihoods, with many now facing financial destitution.
“One would think, given the circumstances under which we fell ill and current workforce shortages, NHS employers would be eager to do everything to facilitate the return to work of people with Long Covid. However, NHS employers are legally required to implement only ‘reasonable adjustments’, and so things such as extended phased return or adjustments to shift patterns, are not always being facilitated. Instead, an increasing number of employers are choosing to terminate contracts. We feel betrayed and completely abandoned.
“Infection control guidelines are fundamentally flawed: SARS-CoV-2 is airborne. It is outrageous that three-and-a-half years into this pandemic, staff and patients are still, knowingly and repeatedly, being exposed to a level-3 biohazard – a virus known to cause brain damage and significantly increased risk of life-threatening blood complications even in those recovered. Healthcare workers must be provided with respiratory protection and the air quality in hospitals be monitored and improved through the installation of ventilation systems and air filter units.”