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Long Covid

Volume 822: debated on Monday 23 May 2022


Asked by

The Government are committed to supporting people with long Covid and are spending £224 million on long Covid care, establishing 90 specialised services for adults and 14 paediatric services for children and young people across England. Those assess people with long Covid and direct them into care pathways that provide appropriate support, treatment and rehabilitation. We are also spending £50 million on research better to understand long Covid and how to treat it.

My Lords, the ONS reports that more than 1.1 million sufferers of long Covid in the UK are unable properly to undertake day-to-day activities as a result of their condition. Asthma + Lung UK has seen a doubling of those seeking help with long Covid in the last six months. Will the Government ensure that specialist clinics are provided across the whole country and that sufferers receive appropriate treatment without enduring long waiting times, as often appears to be the case at present?

I thank the noble Lord for his question. We have established 90 services and 14 paediatric services. We are at the forefront of research on this. A number of countries are asking about and looking at what are doing on so-called long Covid. I should be clear that long Covid is not an accepted medical term. There are three terms: acute Covid-19, which lasts up to four weeks; ongoing symptomatic Covid-19, which lasts between four and 12 weeks; and post-Covid-19 syndrome, which has lasted for more than 12 weeks. Each patient will have different forms and symptoms, and we are seeking to understand that through further research.

The Minister referred to £50 million being allocated to research. How much of that is for studies on affected children, estimated to number some 120,000, and what steps is he taking to ensure timely access to support for children with long Covid?

The noble Lord is absolutely right that we have to look particularly at the issue of paediatric care, as well as other long Covid sufferers. The research is varied in terms of the different medical definitions I just gave. Of the three categories, the latter two loosely tie in with what we understand long Covid to be. They are also in line with the WHO definitions. We have established specialised paediatric services, and the research will look across age groups to see what the most appropriate interventions will be.

My Lords, following on from the question of the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, some of the paediatric long Covid clinics are only treating children for fatigue, and not for respiratory, neurological or blood problems. Will the Minister meet with me and the Long Covid Kids support group to hear some of the problems they face?

I thank the noble Baroness for making us aware of that. I know that there has been extensive stakeholder engagement to understand what the particular issues are. I am happy to commit to a meeting with the noble Baroness.

My Lords, would the Minister be kind enough to let the House know through which body the funding for this research is being undertaken? Is it through UKRI or some other body? How is it split up between different funding bodies? What has been achieved so far with the research that has been done?

The NHS is working with the wider scientific community to better understand both Covid-19 and its long-term health impacts. The £50 million in research is to understand, first, the actual condition—and, as I said earlier, it is not necessarily a medical condition—and how we map and treat it. In addition, we have had 22 research studies to examine the cause of long Covid, to diagnose the condition and to optimise the design of healthcare systems. A lot of this has been done by the National Institute for Health and Care Research, which continues to welcome applications for further research.

My Lords, long Covid must be taken seriously, as it is a sickness that has different degrees of symptoms for everyone recovering from coronavirus. Although most people recover quickly, there are those who have symptoms which last weeks or months after the infection has gone. There is also a burden on the people who must look after, and take care of, those suffering from long Covid, as it impacts people across all age groups. I request that Her Majesty’s Government take the necessary steps for research into long Covid so that people do not continue to suffer for such lengthy periods following the infection stage.

My noble friend is absolutely right that we must take this seriously. This is why, first, we have tried to map it to the three medical conditions I mentioned earlier: acute Covid-19, ongoing symptomatic Covid-19 and post-Covid-19 syndrome. We are also looking at the WHO definition, which defines post-Covid-19 condition as the condition that

“occurs in people who have a history of probable or confirmed SARS-CoV-2 infection; usually within three months from the onset of COVID-19, with symptoms … that last for at least two months”

and which

“cannot be explained by an alternative diagnosis.”

In my meetings with other Health Ministers from across the world, they want to learn from us what we are doing on long Covid and how we can co-operate better.

My Lords, the Minister has stressed the fact that the diagnosis of long Covid is quite tricky and variable, according to the period of time over which people have suffered from it. Can he tell the House what support the NHS is able to provide for GPs to understand how to look at people who are presenting with an unspecified collection of symptoms which might be long Covid? Can he also say what is being done to help employers to understand this?

The noble Baroness makes an important point because there have been some reports that patients feel that GPs have not taken their concerns seriously. In response, NHS England has worked with the Royal College of General Practitioners to provide advice for GPs on the identification and management of long Covid. They have also worked with Health Education England to produce e-learning modules on Covid-19 recovery and rehabilitation. Rather than take up too much time, I commit to writing to the noble Baroness on her second question.

My Lords, my 15 year-old grandson has long Covid and has not been able to go to school since November. His school has been fantastic at trying to assist him, but there is only so much that it can do. What are the Government doing to help schools to support these pupils?

The noble Baroness emphasises just how wide, varying and diverse the symptoms of long Covid are. We know that children and young people can develop long Covid, just as adults can. NHS England has therefore not only established specialised paediatric services to provide care for children and young people, but is looking at providing specialist advice and support to general paediatric services as we learn more, as well as co-operating with international partners to learn from their experience.

My Lords, the Minister quite rightly referred to the correct definition for people who suffer from long Covid as having a post-Covid-19 syndrome. That implies that people may suffer from multi-organ conditions and, in that respect, training is important. Does the Minister agree that NICE should be asked to publish guidelines for all professionals to recognise this condition?

The NICE guidelines start with the definitions as I have laid out previously, and the NICE definitions are aligned with the World Health Organization. On the noble Lord’s specific question, I will have to write to him.

My Lords, the Equality and Human Rights Commission made an announcement on Twitter that it recommended that long Covid should not be treated as a disability. That would mean that those suffering from the condition would have to take their employer to a tribunal if they felt that they were being discriminated against. Can the Minister tell your Lordships’ House what his view is on how reasonable or not this is? What steps are being taken to promote understanding by employers of this debilitating condition and to encourage and guide them to be open to making changes in the workplace to support sufferers in continuing to work?

The noble Baroness makes a very important point. We are learning more about the different types of long Covid, how to treat them and what interventions they need. People will not always need to go to a primary or secondary care centre for their treatment; in fact, there is an app to help people who can be supported at home. In terms of general advice about disability or to employers, we are working across government as we learn more about this in order to give appropriate advice to employers.