Long Covid: Poorest patients denied specialist NHS treatment

The Independent
The Independent

Long Covid sufferers from the poorest areas of the country are being denied access to specialist care, figures show.

The NHS has admitted that it must do more to help those from deprived backgrounds gain access to its long Covid clinics, which were launched at the end of 2020 with the promise of “vital rehabilitation”.

There are fears that the disparity in treatment could widen the inequality gap at a time when ministers are vowing to “level up” Britain.

Data shows that patients from the poorest areas account for just one in five patients at the clinics, though separate figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) suggest that those living in the most deprived areas are 40 per cent more likely to suffer from long Covid than those from the richest areas.

Cathy Hassell, director of clinical policy, quality and operations at NHS England, admitted that more needed to be done to “make sure that access is open to all people from all communities”.

Speaking to a Local Government Association webinar this week, she said the number of people from deprived areas being treated at the clinics “doesn’t seem to reflect the incidence that the ONS captures”.

The data for clinic assessments between 25 October and 21 November shows that 4,599 patients in England received “specialist assessments” at the long Covid clinics, but only 851 were from the most deprived areas. Three per cent of patients were Black and 7 per cent Asian, while the majority were white women aged 35 to 64.

Dr Aidan Fowler, NHS national director of patient safety, said the higher rate of long Covid in poorer communities “has the potential to worsen the sort of health and wider socioeconomic inequalities that already occur”.

According to the ONS, an estimated 1.3 million people in the UK have long Covid, with 506,000 suffering for a year or more. Symptoms include fatigue, chest pain, brain fog, shortness of breath and dizziness.

More than £100m is earmarked for long Covid clinics this year across almost 100 sites. When they were launched at the end of 2020, the then NHS chief executive Sir Simon Stevens said: “Bringing expert clinicians together in these clinics will deliver an integrated approach to support patients to access vital rehabilitation, as well as helping develop a greater understanding of long Covid and its debilitating symptoms.”

But the latest data shows a third of patients being seen had waited more than 15 weeks for an assessment, while close to 40 per cent had waited up to six weeks.

It comes amid reports that some of the centres have been shut down in recent weeks. One member of the long Covid taskforce told The Independent that clinic closures were “very common” and that there was “huge unwarranted variation” in the treatment on offer. “[There is a] hopeless lack of clear strategy,” they added.

Even the target capacity of 68,000 patients is far short of the estimated number of long Covid sufferers.

Dr Elaine Maxwell, lead author of the reviews undertaken by the National Institute for Health Research titled Living with Covid-19, told The Independent that, under the current system, “only a fraction of people are getting through to specialist care”.

She said it was “concerning that only 20 per cent of people seen in long Covid clinics so far have been from the most deprived postcodes, potentially reinforcing the inequalities we see in access to healthcare for other conditions”.

An NHS spokesperson said: “The NHS is taking practical action to help patients suffering ongoing health issues as a result of coronavirus – bringing together experts and setting up 90 specialist clinics covering the whole country, as well as collecting and publishing data on the demographics of patients referred with long Covid to develop a greater understanding of this new condition.

“Anyone who is concerned about long lasting symptoms following Covid-19 should continue to get in touch with their GP practice, or go online to the NHS ‘Your Covid Recovery’ website for further advice.”

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