How staff at Yorkshire's first Long Covid clinic fear for 'overwhelming' future of treating patients
A year into the global pandemic, one in 10 of people who catch COVID-19, will still be suffering physical and psychological side effects months later.
It’s been estimated that Long Covid - people having symptoms going on beyond 12 weeks - could cost the UK around £2.5bn a year.
Experts predict we are now entering a second worldwide health crisis with more than 10 million people predicted to develop the condition around the world.
Tonight a special behind the scenes report by Channel 4 report will shine a light on the first Long Covid clinic in Yorkshire.
In August last year Dr Paul Whitaker, a respiratory consultant for Bradford Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, said he saw an "urgent need" to support his patients and he set up the first Long Covid clinic in Yorkshire at St Luke’s Hospital.
Bradford has seen some of the highest infection rates in the country with one in 10 people contracting the disease.
High levels of Covid have in turn led to high levels of Long Covid and across the city there are predicted to be more than 4,000 people suffering with long term symptoms.
He said: "The number of people who have had Covid in the UK makes this an almost overwhelming problem."
Dr Whitaker said after the team carry out chest x-rays, CT scans and full lung function tests, people can have varying symptoms.
He said: "Some people have evidence of scarring, some people have evidence of an inability to absorb oxygen properly," he said.
"But most people have normal tests. For these people it really comes down to fatigue, to muscle strength and also to what the physiotherapists call dysfunctional breathing, so after Covid people breathe a little bit differently."
Dr Whitaker said treatments for the long-Covid has changed greatly over the past eight months. Initially he said there was a lot more emphasis on physical rehabilitation programmes.
"Almost kind of a regimented approach to try and get people better and this didn't work," he explained. "I guess one breakthrough is, we don't push people too hard, we do things really in their own time, time itself has just allowed them to recover."
Currently there are more than 60 Long Covid assessment clinics around the country and in February this year the national institute of health research announced £18.5m for four new Long Covid studies.
However, Dr Whitaker said a problem for clinicians is studies will take between two to three years to get any results.
He highlighted early research had found some patients are recovering very quickly but some patients are developing a condition that is akin to chronic fatigue syndrome.
"And this is where the experience of people who have been dealing with chronic fatigue for decades is really important. One thing we know is, we don’t push people too hard," he said.
Dr Whitaker said for future treatment a lot more emphasis is needed to be placed on the mental health recovery of long-Covid patients - he reported the prevalence for anxiety and depression was around 25 per cent at his clinic.
There is currently no psychologist on the long covid team and there is no additional funding across the country for specialist psychological services for Long Covid.
Dr Whitaker is encouraging his patients to self-refer into a mental health service that is already facing unprecedented demand.
He said: "We are following these patients over the long term but it is frightening what’s been happening with people.
"We’ve had two patients who have come to clinic frankly suicidal. So we’ve been pushing for more psychology input – so far we haven’t managed to get it – we will keep trying – and then in the meantime we will keep supporting them as best we can in this clinic.”
Suzanne Heywood-Everett, a consultant clinical psychologist in the North of England, added: "It’s really important we are not just thinking about mental health now, we are thinking about how our mental health as a nation is affected over the next 5-10 years."
Even though the long covid clinical team is getting some positive results, the Bradford assessment centre and others like it are presently only funded until the end of March this year.
Dr Whitaker stressed the need for a long-term investment and commitment from the Government and NHS England to tackle the condition.
He said: To manage Long Covid properly is a very expensive problem and this is going to run into 100s of millions a year.
"What we’re hoping for is... More investment is made so that these patients can access care quickly and they’re not waiting four or five or six months to see people who can help them."
Professor John Wright, head of Bradford Institute of Health Research added: "The attention over the past year has been funding things like PPE and testing and ICU beds and we need to move to seeing how we fund the rehabilitation of these patients with Long Covid.
"The legacy of Covid is the lives of people with Long Covid and it’s really crucial that we give them the support that they need."
The special Channel 4 Dispatches report will air tonight at 8pm.
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