PATIENTS WITH LONG COVID are suffering under a postcode lottery in care that will exacerbate health inequalities, delegates at the Royal College of Nursing’s annual Congress have been told.

Diagnosis and treatment vary greatly across the UK – with Long Covid,treated as a physical condition in some clinics but predominantly as a psychological condition in others – and the RCN says existing services are woefully inadequate to meet the level of demand.

Latest data from the ONS Coronavirus Infection Survey (CIS), released at the start of June, estimated 2.0 million people were experiencing self-reported Long Covid, which it defines as symptoms persisting for more than four weeks after the first suspected coronavirus (Covid-19) infection that were not explained by something else. Over one million of these people have been suffering with Long Covid for over a year.

The RCN is calling for the UK government to significantly increase its investment in Long Covid research and care so that patients are treated fairly across the UK to prevent damaging health inequalities being exacerbated.

Inequalities are already visible in the CIS as the prevalence of Long Covid  is greatest in females, people living in more deprived areas and those working in social care, teaching and education or heath care.

Some sufferers say it has reduced them to the ‘shell’ of the person they were, and a report from the Institute for Public Policy Research in April said 400,000 people have been dri’ven from the workforce by health factors including Long Covid care, that could result in an £8 billion hit to the UK economy.

The RCN also wants nursing expertise to be used more widely – Long Covid has increasingly become recognised as a long-term condition in which symptoms, such as fatigue, joint pain and brain fog, require ongoing management and treatment.

Nursing staff are experts in managing long-term conditions such as cancer and diabetes, but the RCN understands that very few of England’s NHS Long Covid clinics are drawing on specialist nursing knowledge.

RCN’s 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.”

Kelly, from Northern Ireland, a member of the public who still suffers from the effects of Covid-19 contracted in April 2020 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.”

Understanding of the illness has changed. Long Covid was first treated as a respiratory illness which required rehabilitation to repair damage to the body, or psychological treatment. Now it is also recognised as a complex, long-term condition.

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.”

* Source: Royal College of Nursing