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Long COVID: postcode lottery of care will exacerbate health inequalities

7 Jun 2022

The UK government must invest in nurse-led services and research to support the growing number of long COVID sufferers struggling to access specialist care.

Illustration shows nurse struggling to escape from the tendrils of covid-19

People with long COVID face a postcode lottery when accessing care, nursing staff at RCN Congress will hear today (7 June). 

With an estimated two million people in the UK currently suffering from long COVID, and 71% of those reporting that it is adversely affecting their day-to-day activities, tackling the condition should be an urgent priority for the UK government. 

Diagnosis and treatment currently vary hugely from region to region. Although 89 long COVID clinics have been set up around the UK, some patients report waiting months for their first appointment. Services are also recommending contradictory treatments, with some treating long COVID as a physical condition and others as a psychological condition, revealing a lack of research and specialist knowledge. 

While nurses with expertise in areas such as chronic fatigue, respiratory diseases and other long-term conditions would be well-placed to help patients manage their symptoms, the RCN understands that very few of England’s NHS long COVID clinics are currently drawing on specialist nursing knowledge. 

The government must significantly increase investment in long COVID services and research into the condition to end the postcode lottery and prevent health inequalities worsening. The latest data shows that women, people living in deprived areas, and those working in health and social care are more likely to be suffering from long COVID.

RCN Professional Lead for Public Health, Helen Donovan, said: “As nursing staff we see first-hand how life-limiting long COVID can be, especially when patients are suffering with complex chronic symptoms such as fatigue, joint pain and brain fog.  

“With over two million sufferers there aren’t enough specialist services to meet the growing demand, and the help patients get varies hugely across the country. What’s clear is that the understanding nursing staff have of managing long-term conditions, including pain management, is not being used effectively. 

“Ministers must significantly increase investment in long COVID research and support to ensure there are enough services and they are consistent across the UK.”  

Long COVID symptoms include breathlessness, muscle pain, brain fog and fatigue so debilitating that sufferers can be bedridden for months. Many members of nursing staff are currently suffering from long COVID and must be supported to recover and eventually return to the workforce.

Jo Stucke, a mental health nurse who works in a specialist mental health long COVID clinic in Yorkshire, said: “Some of our patients have really complex physical health problems and their lives have been transformed after COVID. They may be unable to work, socialise and do things that they previously enjoyed doing, contributing to developing depression and anxiety. It is important to treat their physical and mental health together. Nurses are here to help.”

Kelly, from Northern Ireland, who contracted COVID-19 in April 2020 and still suffers from the side-effects, said: “It still shocks me that I feel so exhausted now. COVID has been life-changing and I’m a shell of the person I was, but I am focusing hard on being positive.”

Find out more about long COVID on the RCN Magazines website:

Page last updated - 23/06/2022