NHS to offer ‘long COVID’ sufferers help at specialist centres

People suffering ‘long COVID’ symptoms will be offered specialist help at clinics across England, the head of the NHS has announced.

Respiratory consultants, physiotherapists, other specialists and GPs will all help assess, diagnose and treat thousands of sufferers who have reported symptoms ranging from breathlessness, chronic fatigue, “brain fog”, anxiety and stress.

Increasing medical evidence and patient testimony is showing that a small but significant minority of people who contract COVID cannot shake off the effects of the virus months after initially falling ill. Some estimates suggest that 10% of COVID patients may still be experiencing symptoms more than three weeks after infection, and perhaps 60,000 people could be suffering from long covid symptoms after more than three months.

NHS chief executive Sir Simon Stevens announced that £10 million is be invested this year in additional local funding to help kick start and designate long COVID clinics in every area across England, to complement existing primary, community and rehabilitation care.

Sir Simon said a new network will be a core element of a five-part package of measures to boost NHS support for long COVID patients. These measures will include:

  1. New guidance commissioned by NHS England from NICE by the end of October on the medical ‘case definition’ of long COVID. This will include patients who have had COVID who may not have had a hospital admission or a previous positive test. It will be followed by evidence-based NICE clinical guidelines in November on the support that long COVID patients should receive, enabling NHS doctors, therapists and staff to provide a clear and personalised treatment plan. This will include education materials for GPs and other health professionals to help them refer and signpost patients to the right support.
  2. The ‘Your Covid Recovery‘ – an online rehab service to provide personalised support to patients. Over 100,000 people have used the online hub since it launched in July, which gives people general information and advice on living with long COVID. Phase 2 of the digital platform being developed this Autumn by the University of Leicester will see people able to access a tailored rehabilitation plan. This will enable patients to set goals for their mental and physical health, provide peer to peer support through social community forums, offer an ‘ask the expert’ facility for patients to contact their local rehab service, and allow patients to be monitored by their local rehab teams to ensure that they are on track with their care. This service will be available to anyone suffering symptoms that are likely due to COVID-19, regardless of location or whether they have spent time in hospital. It is most likely that patients will access the service through their GP, but they could also be referred through another healthcare professional following assessment.
  3. Designated Long COVID clinics will be established. This will involve each part of the country designating expert one-stop services in line with an agreed national specification. Post-COVID services will provide joined up care for physical and mental health, with patients having access to:
    – A physical assessment, which will include diagnostic testing, to identify any potential chronic health issues.
    – A cognitive assessment, to assess any potential memory, attention, and concentration problems.
    – A psychological assessment, to see if someone is suffering potentially from depression, anxiety, PTSD, or another mental health condition.
    Patients could also then be referred from designated clinics into specialist lung disease services, sleep clinics, cardiac services, rehabilitation services, or signposted into IAPT and other mental health services.
  4. National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) funded research on long COVID which is working with 10,000 patients to better understand the condition and refine appropriate treatment.
  5. The NHS’s support will be overseen by a new NHS England Long COVID taskforce which will include long COVID patients, medical specialists and researchers.

NHS chief executive Sir Simon Stevens said: “While this is still a relatively new virus, we are learning more about COVID with every passing week. It is now clear that long COVID can have a major impact on the lives of a significant minority of patients weeks or months after they have contracted the virus. So, just as the NHS quickly put in place specialist hospital care for acutely ill COVID patients at the start of the pandemic, now we must respond sensitively and effectively to these new patient needs.”