I recently co-sponsored a backbench business debate on the impact of long covid on the workforce. This is an issue that the All Party Parliamentary Group on Coronavirus, of which I am Vice Chair, have examined in detail. Please see my speech in the debate below:
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran). I congratulate her not only on securing this debate, but on her leadership of the APPG, which she chairs exceptionally well. Today’s debate and the report that underpins it reflect that. I also thank all those who have provided evidence to the APPG, particularly on the latest report. Their stories are moving and quite shocking. In addition, I thank the secretariat, who do a fantastic job of providing support to the group.
This Covid pandemic is far from over. I am wearing my mask, and we know we have an outbreak in Parliament, with a number of MPs currently off with covid. It is far from over. We are seeing case numbers ticking upwards, hospitalisations also on the rise and, sadly, increased deaths. Once again, we have seen the burden of disease from this pandemic hitting the most deprived. Avoidable mortality is six times greater for women in deprived areas compared with the least deprived women and nearly five times greater for men. Yet we see a spring statement where the Government’s “levelling up” rhetoric has no substance. Just £1 out of the £6 from the Chancellor’s tax hike in the autumn was given back, but only 30p from that £1 went to those on the lowest incomes.
Despite the Government’s hype, their pandemic preparedness was woeful and their pandemic management in too many aspects was reckless, wasteful and even unlawful. We are now aware that, although many people may have fully recovered from the acute phase of covid infection, as the Member for Oxford West and Abingdon has said, for a significant number—ONS data estimates more than 1.5 million or 2.5% of the population, although the covid tracker identifies a larger percentage—there is a longer chronic phase. That chronic phase affects children, about 34,000 at the moment, women, particularly younger women of working age, people on low incomes, frontline workers who are more at risk of exposure, including NHS and care workers, and those with an existing activity-limiting health condition or disability.
As we have heard, symptoms vary but, in summary, they include fatigue, pain, reduced muscle strength, brain fog and so on. In my own case, I have experienced prolonged fatigue bordering on exhaustion, being awake but my brain being somehow disengaged from what I am doing and nasty bouts of nausea. I believe that covid has also exacerbated my already severe arthritis, which is partly the result of many years of running, but has got considerably worse with long covid. The pain is constant and sometimes completely debilitating, making it difficult to stand up.
What is shocking is the response to people who are experiencing long covid from their employers. The hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon mentioned some of these cases. I have also heard of those who have been disciplined by their employers. They were struggling with this condition and wanted to go about their everyday lives. They wanted to be at work and yet they were disciplined for not being able to be back at their desks, back in front of their class, or to see patients; we heard from a GP, as Members may remember. This very much reflects, unfortunately, the attitude of some, but it was particularly disappointing in public sector organisations, especially the NHS.
In December 2020, the National Institute of Health and Care Excellence brought forward its guidelines on managing long covid. At the time, I commended it on the holistic healthcare approach taken when assessing a patient with symptoms beyond four and 12 weeks, with the emphasis on empathy and acknowledging the impact the symptoms may have on the patient’s day-to-day life, including their ability to work. This was a major step forward from previous NICE guidelines on other chronic fatigue syndrome illnesses that are similar to long covid but also affect the nervous and immune systems. The NICE guidelines on long covid were updated earlier this month, and I note that they are to be regularly updated, which we recommended, because there is emerging evidence that we must make sure is incorporated at the earliest opportunity. I hope, because I have not seen evidence of this, that investigations into the range of immune responses to covid as well as immune therapies will also be incorporated.
As I mentioned last year, the British Society for Immunology and several others have suggested that in addition to long-term damage to multiple organs, the pain, muscle weakness, fatigue and even brain fog often associated with long covid may be due to inflammatory issues associated with our immune response rather than covid itself. Covid-19, like other viruses, attacks multiple systems—respiratory, cardiovascular, nervous and gastrointestinal—as it attaches to epithelial cells that are distributed throughout the body. Our bodies’ ability to fight the virus depends on our immune systems reacting appropriately and not overreacting.
We need adequate long-term funding for long covid clinics providing evidence-based therapies—evidence is the key. I pay tribute to my colleagues in Oldham for helping over 300 long covid patients. We need to ensure that long covid is recognised as an occupational disease. There has to be a societal approach.
You can read the full debate in Hansard, here.