NHS needs help to tackle long-term symptoms of COVID-19

symptoms of COVID-19, Nuffield health
© Niccolo Pontigia

Jon Taberner, Senior Rehabilitation Specialist at Nuffield Health, explains that individuals with long-term symptoms of COVID-19 will need a lot of support

The NHS faced backlog challenges well before the pandemic, and as we continue to face new COVID-19 strains the effects are only becoming more pronounced, with recent figures showing that a shocking 24,000 patients have been waiting more than two years for care[1].

In the face of new and emerging strains of COVID-19 and amidst the threat of continually increasing pressure on an already strained workforce, it has never been more important to drive down waiting lists using innovative interventions that work.

The increased pressure on capacity affects a broad spectrum of patients, from cancer and cardiac to an increasing pressure on mental health resources, with 6.1 million patients in total waiting for care[2].  And a new waiting list is forming of patients that desperately need access to care.

Now, 1.5 million people are experiencing self-reported Long COVID

Latest ONS figures[3] reveal an estimated 1.5 million people or 2.4% of the population are experiencing self-reported long-term symptoms of COVID-19, a number that is ever growing. Those suffering from this condition can face severe and unpredictable physical and mental wellbeing effects such as breathlessness, fatigue and anxiety.

Two years on from the first lockdown in the UK, our understanding of the full consequences of contracting the virus are still continuing to develop and it is clear that supporting patients suffering must be prioritised. Patients suffering from long term effects of COVID-19 are often discharged from hospital with no formal recovery plan, which can result in a longer recovery process. For those still struggling after discharge or having had the virus, the picture is bleak.

Recent NHSE data shows that 40% of patients awaiting access to post-COVID services in England are having to wait more three months for an initial assessment, further building pressure on the NHS resources. Analysis by Nuffield Health has also shown this varies widely across the country, with over two thirds (67%) of patients living in the South East and over half (52%) of patients living in the North East having to wait longer than three months compared to just 21% in the East of England[4].

New, free-to-access COVID-19 Rehabilitation Programme

This is why Nuffield Health, the UK’s largest healthcare charity, devised a free-to-access COVID-19 Rehabilitation Programme. The programme, developed by a multi-disciplinary team of experts, is the only publicly available service to be included in the latest national NICE guidance on managing the long term effects of COVID-19, and runs in over 40 sites across the country.

Initial findings from the programme suggest its success as well as helping further understanding of recovery from the virus, with patients completing the 12-week course seeing an average 64% improvement in mental wellbeing and 39% improvement in functional capacity.

The programme has also reaped wider societal benefits, leading to average decrease of 11 sick days, 1.68 weekly care hours, and 1.48 GP appointments per patient that completes the 12 weeks.

Nonetheless, patients sometimes face an inconsistent recovery with long-term symptoms of COVID-19. With this in mind, Nuffield Health continue to review and evolve the rehabilitation programme to ensure the programme addresses all elements of recovery. Fatigue is not only one of the most reported symptoms but is also one of the most extreme in severity day-to-day.

The NHS needs help to tackle COVID-19 recovery across the UK

As a result of this understanding, Nuffield Health has now added in fatigue management training for staff delivering the programme to equip them to support patients showing these extreme symptoms. The organisation are also conducting research into blood oxygen desaturation, post-exertion, to try and gain an understanding of what causes the spikes in fatigue severity.

As we continue to recover from the impacts of the pandemic we are calling on the Government to work with the broader fitness and healthcare sectors to improve patient’s access to rehabilitation programmes like these, and to provide greater access to funding for community-based rehabilitation programmes.

The pandemic showed us the importance of work being done in the community, for the community, as well as the value of collaboration across industries. There is still so much we don’t know about the virus, but what we do know is that the NHS cannot tackle COVID-19 recovery alone.

We must work together to rebuild a healthier nation, providing the help that is needed for those still struggling from the awful impacts.


[1] https://www.independent.co.uk/news/health/nhs-waiting-list-backlog-hospital-uk-b2032741.html

[2] https://www.independent.co.uk/news/health/nhs-waiting-list-backlog-hospital-uk-b2032741.html


[4] https://www.england.nhs.uk/statistics/statistical-work-areas/covid-19-post-covid-assessment-service/


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