NHS services for the 2million Britons battling long Covid are ‘woefully inadequate’ given the number of people diagnosed with the disease, nursing leaders have warned.
There are too few specialist clinics to cope with the growing demand for treatment, with only a small number of patients receiving help, the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) has said.
The Office for National Statistics estimated last week that the number of people in the UK suffering from persistent Covid symptoms such as fatigue, muscle aches and breathing problems has doubled in a year, from 1million in May 2021 to 2 million last month.
The NHS has responded to the growing number of long Covid patients by setting up clinics to assess, diagnose and treat them and refer them to other services, such as cardiology services for people with heart problems.
But the RCN claimed that “existing services are woefully insufficient to meet the level of demand”. Warning of a ‘postcode lottery in access to care, he also expressed concern that ‘diagnosis and treatment varies hugely across the UK, with Covid long treated as a physical condition in some clinics but mainly as a psychological condition in others”.
While England already had 89 long Covid clinics last July, Northern Ireland has just one and Wales and Scotland have yet to set up their first ones.
“With more than 2 million sufferers, there are not enough specialist services to meet the growing demand, and the help patients receive varies enormously across the country,” said professional lead Helen Donovan. of RCR public health.
“Of the 2 million people who have long declared themselves Covid, only a fraction are aware of the treatment available or have access to it. In April, only a tiny fraction of the sick, 4,500, were awaiting assessment at a long Covid clinic in England.
Nurses should be much more involved in providing care for long-term Covid patients, given their expertise in managing long-term conditions such as cancer and diabetes, Donovan added. Clinics are usually run by pulmonologists who are aided by physical therapists and sometimes occupational therapists and psychologists, she said.
Layla Moran, the Liberal Democrat MP who chairs the Coronavirus All-Party Parliamentary Group, said: ‘Around 2 million people in the UK are living with long Covid and yet the Government still fails to fully grasp the enormity of the challenge this condition gifts to people’s livelihoods, to the economy and to our public services.
The Guardian has contacted the Department of Health and Social Care for a response.
Meanwhile, about half of people with long-term Covid may be affected by sleep disturbances, the data shows.
Cinthya Pena Orbea, from the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, US, analyzed data from 962 patients attending the centre’s reCOVer Clinic, which provides care for people with chronic or new symptoms of Covid for at least 28 days after diagnosis, between February 2021 and April 2022. Of these individuals, 8% reported severe sleep disturbances while 41% reported moderate sleep disturbances.
People with high body mass index (BMI) and anxiety were more likely to be affected, while black patients were three times more likely to suffer from moderate to severe sleep disturbances, even after adjusting for of demography. The results were presented at the Sleep 2022 meeting in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Separate research published in Brain Science in April found that 51% of people presenting to a long Covid clinic in Texas reported sleep disturbances and that poor sleep quality was associated with increased depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress.
Neither study was able to determine whether anxiety contributed to people’s sleep problems, or vice versa – or whether other symptoms, such as pain, caused their sleep problems. . “Future work should follow patients to examine whether sleep, fatigue and mental health symptoms resolve spontaneously over time,” said Sara Nowakowski of Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, who led the Texas-based research.
A spokesman for the Department of Health said: “Long Covid is a new challenge for health systems around the world and the UK is leading the way in research, treatment and care.”
They added: “We are supporting our world-renowned scientists with over £50m to better understand the debilitating long-term effects of Covid, and the NHS has committed £224m to support people with persistent symptoms of Covid, with over 90 specialist clinics across England.”