NHS trusts in England lost nearly 2m days in staff absences due to long Covid in the first 18 months of the pandemic, according to figures that reveal the hidden burden of ongoing illness in the health service.
MPs on the all-party parliamentary group (APPG) on coronavirus estimate that more than 1.82m days were lost to healthcare workers with long Covid from March 2020 to September 2021 across England’s 219 NHS trusts.
The estimate is based on data obtained under the Freedom of Information Act from 70 NHS trusts and does not include the impact of the highly transmissible Omicron variant that has fulled record-breaking waves of infection in the UK and globally since it was first detected in November.
Layla Moran, the Liberal Democrat MP who chairs the APPG, said the government had paid “almost no attention to long Covid and the severe impact it was having on vital public services” and called for immediate support for those affected.
“Thousands of frontline workers are now living with an often debilitating condition after being exposed to the virus while protecting this country,” she said. “They cannot now be abandoned.”
The Office for National Statistics estimates that 1.3 million people, or 2% of the population, are living with long Covid, based on people self-reporting symptoms that last more than a month after a Covid infection. More than half a million have had symptoms for at least a year, with ailments ranging from breathlessness, fatigue and a cough to muscle aches and pains, “brain fog”, headaches and palpitations.
While the figures are only a rough estimate of the impact long Covid is having on health service staff, the MPs have called on the government to recognise the condition as an occupational disease. The move would help standardise support and care for those affected, and improve data collection on the problem across the country. In a further step, the MPs urged ministers to set up a compensation scheme for key workers who have suffered financially through loss of work.
The APPG estimates that long Covid caused thousands of staff to be off work for four weeks or more in any given period of the epidemic up until September 2021. The average trust had more than 100 staff off with long Covid and lost more than 8,000 days in absences over the period examined.
Only four NHS trusts provided details on the duration of staff absences due to long Covid. These suggest that on average staff were off for more than 80 days with long-term symptoms.
Moran said the government must create a compensation scheme for “any of these key workers who have been unable to return to work” and “as a first step in protecting our public services from the impact of long Covid, they must recognise it as an occupational disease and provide formal guidance to employers.”
Saffron Cordery, the deputy chief executive of NHS Providers, which represents hospital trusts in England, said while additional funding had been set aside for long Covid services, demand was likely to grow given the large number of people infected in the Omicron wave.
“We will need to see more long-term, structural support for treatment of long Covid, as the shorter term horizon of fixed pots of funding make it difficult to develop and train a sustainable workforce,” she said. “This is particularly important for community trusts and primary care services which have been on the frontline of managing long Covid support.
“As we start to grapple with the long term effects of Covid, the government will need to look at the wider socio-economic impacts of the disease, including who needs specific support. While this is a decision for government, we know that worklessness and economic deprivation increase demand for mental health services, which are already under incredible strain.”