Jon Dale, Unite union EM/NG32 Nottinghamshire Health branch (personal capacity)
Illness and disability lasting more than three months after Covid affects almost 700,000 people in Britain. NHS services for them are still patchy and inadequate. And on top of uncertainty about their future health, many face the grim prospect of unemployment and poverty on paltry benefits.
An Office for National Statistics survey in February estimated 196,000 people had their day-to-day activities restricted “a lot” at least 12 weeks after Covid. 70,000 were still suffering after 12 months.
Tiredness, muscle aches, tinnitus, poor concentration and ‘brain fog’ are common symptoms, varying from person to person. Some have significant damage to heart, lungs, kidneys or other organs.
Unfortunately, ‘long-Covid’ sufferers are not the only people with similar problems. Chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS/ME) is sometimes post-viral and sometimes has no known trigger. It has been known about for years but its causes are still poorly understood. Around 250,000 adults are estimated to be affected.
Specialist NHS services saw around 14,000 CFS/ME patients in the UK in 2016 at a cost of £14 million – nowhere near enough to really support the large number affected. Yet, NHS England has announced it will spend a mere £10 million on clinics for the many more long-Covid patients.
With fatigue a major problem, clinics need to be local to avoid exhausting journeys, with staff to provide home visits when necessary. A major expansion is needed to provide easy access for everyone who needs it.
Much more research is also needed into the causes and possible treatments of both long-Covid and CFS/ME, which has long been neglected. This can’t be left to charities and certainly not to for-profit pharmaceutical corporations.
Work or full pay
Many people experiencing long-Covid have been unable to return to work. Bosses may be on to their backs demanding performance targets they can’t manage.
Anyone unable to return to work after Covid should have their jobs kept open for them and receive full sick pay (not the current measly £96 a week Statutory Sick Pay) while they are properly medically assessed; and then receive full NHS rehabilitation programmes. Trade unions need to protect workers from dismissal.
Those unable to return to their previous jobs need retraining opportunities, with guaranteed jobs at the end. Part-time and flexible working hours should be provided. Benefits need to either make up pay to a level people can live on or full benefits should do this – not the scandalously low levels the government pays now.
Unions must fight for jobs, benefits and services for all those still suffering ill health months after Covid infection.