In its hard-hitting public awareness campaign, “Look into my eyes”, the government calls upon all of us to take responsibility and to think about the impact that our actions can have on healthcare staff as well as their patients. The advert tells us that our actions can help to reduce transmission and save lives, and by saving lives we protect another precious resource: the health and wellbeing of our frontline workers.
It is evident that the pandemic has not affected society equally. Those who have shouldered the heaviest burden of looking after us have been our doctors, nurses, care workers, and all those who work in essential services. They have continued to work in public-facing roles, despite the very real danger that it posed to them. They carried on working because we needed them to.
When we finally emerge from this pandemic, no one will come out unchanged, but there is a large cohort of people for whom the path out is still very much an unknown and frightening journey.
Long Covid affects people of all ages, many with no pre-existing conditions. It is estimated that around one in 10 people with Covid-19 will have symptoms that do not resolve themselves over subsequent months. These symptoms can be varying, relapsing and remitting and may affect the heart, lungs, spine, brain and stomach in unpredictable combinations.
The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Coronavirus, of which I am a vice-chair, has heard from many people who have been living with long Covid for many months. Jo has been unable to return to work as a community midwife since June last year when she contracted Covid-19. She is now forced to use a wheelchair because she cannot walk more than 10 metres.
Geraint, a 30-year-old pharmacist, suffers from acute heart problems because of long Covid. Sophie, a 27-year-old nurse, compares living with long Covid to running a marathon with no finishing line. Iona, a secondary school teacher, has been left bed-bound with long Covid, unable to stand for any period of time.
“As the weeks went on it felt like being slowly erased, all your plans and all the things you normally do in your life being taken away one by one.”
These are just a few of the many thousands of frontline workers who were exposed to Covid-19 as a result of their work, often with inadequate PPE, and who are now left months later with debilitating symptoms, abandoned by our government, and not knowing if or when they will be able to return to living the life they led before they contracted the virus.
Last week, backed by the British Medical Association, the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Coronavirus launched its campaign to recognise long Covid as an occupational disease and to set up a compensation scheme for frontline workers suffering from the condition, similar to the Armed Service compensation scheme.
Many European countries have already made Covid-19 an occupational disease, acknowledging not only that the virus can often be caught at work, but also the devastating effect of the virus on people’s lives. The UK government must follow suit and do the right thing by recognising the impact that long Covid is having on our frontline workers, and by ensuring that they receive adequate care and compensation for as long as they need it.
The government looked to our frontline workers to protect our lives when we needed them to. As their advert makes clear, we owe our frontline staff a huge debt of gratitude. But words are not enough. As we slowly emerge from this crisis, we cannot abandon them.
The UK government must now acknowledge its own responsibility to those who are left living with long Covid, by providing them with the proper recognition, care and compensation that they deserve and need.