Long Covid: Calls for specialist clinics in Wales

By Alex Jennings
BBC News

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media captionLong Covid is not yet fully understood

A sports instructor suffering from "long Covid" says she struggles to speak, climb stairs and do everyday tasks since becoming unwell in March.

Sarah Wakefield, 46, from Bridgend, said: "I feel like I'm 96. It's horrible."

Campaign group Long Covid Wales wants specialist clinics across Wales, similar to those planned for England.

The Welsh Government said it expected health boards to develop and improve access to rehabilitation services.

Long Covid is a term being used to describe a range of symptoms identified in people months after they have had coronavirus.

image copyrightFamily photo
image captionMrs Wakefield - once so fit - says she now cannot carry out simple tasks such as carrying laundry upstairs

BBC Wales Live asked Wales' seven health boards if they have a specialist long Covid service.

But so far only one health board said it would set up a multi-disciplinary rehabilitation service for people with long Covid who did not initially need hospitalisation.

Mrs Wakefield was working as a mountain bike coach and paddle sports instructor but says she now struggles to carry laundry upstairs, make tea or help her three children with homework because of her symptoms.

She has not worked since March and said was going to have to apply for benefits.

image copyrightFamily photo
image captionMrs Wakefield says she struggles to speak, climb stairs and do everyday tasks

She said: "The sort of work I did required me to ride six or seven hours up the mountain - and I couldn't even dream of going up the end of my road on my bike at the moment."

Mrs Wakefield, who owns her own business, said she hoped to be able to work again by next spring, but the ongoing nature of long Covid made it hard to know when she would feel better.

'It takes your life away'

image captionDr Ian Frayling has had symptoms of long Covid since March

Dr Ian Frayling, 61, from Cowbridge, Vale of Glamorgan, is a genetic pathologist and senior clinical research fellow at Cardiff University.

He is also a member of the campaign group Long Covid Wales, having had symptoms of the condition since early March.

He said: "It takes your life away… it's frightening because it's an illness without a prognosis, we have no idea how long it will continue in people.

"Those of us who were infected very early on are still suffering."

Dr Frayling said there should be multi-disciplinary clinics in each health board area to avoid what he called the current "postcode lottery".

'Really debilitating'

Lee David Bowen, 49, from Trethomas, Caerphilly, is a professional opera singer who has previously performed with the Welsh National Opera.

He has been suffering with fatigue and brain fog since he became unwell with Covid-19 at the end of February.

image captionLee David Bowen has been suffering with fatigue since February

He said: "Something as simple as cooking a meal can be shattering, really debilitating.

"Trying to catch up on admin, emails from my agent or whatever, you get through one email and it's exhausting, absolutely exhausting."

He thinks some people with long Covid have been ignored by their GPs.

"It's just very saddening to see these people are not being taken seriously," he added.

"And I can see that not only is there going to be a physical health problem for people, but there's a massive mental health problem that's coming down the line."

'A longer lasting problem'

Professor of Genetic Epidemiology at King's College London Tim Spector led a Covid symptom study, which looked at data from 4m people in the UK using a symptom tracker app.

It found older people, women and those who experience a wide range of initial Covid-19 symptoms may be more likely to develop long Covid.

He warned unless the virus changes, there will continue to be an increase in cases of long Covid.

He said: "It could be that this ends up being a longer lasting public health problem than actually the excess deaths caused by the virus that tend to occur in the more elderly in our population."

He also backed calls for regional multi-disciplinary centres.

"At the moment there's no treatments but we do urgently need more research in this area and we need earlier intervention… we need to get a lot of different expertise together to get on top of this," he said.

image captionMrs Wakefield said the nature of her illness meant she did not know when she would be able to return to work

Cardiff and Vale Health Board is the first in Wales planning to open a multi-disciplinary rehabilitation service.

It hopes to open in early December and run it until April 2022.

A psychologist, physiotherapist, occupational therapist, dietician and a speech and language therapist will collectively treat the physical and mental health symptoms associated with long Covid as part of the service.

A Welsh Government spokesperson said: "Our approach to supporting people recovering from Covid-19 will continue to be focused on providing care and support as close to home as possible, which is tailored to people's specific needs.

"We have published a national rehabilitation framework and guidance, which is based on the latest available evidence and will continue to be updated as we continue to learn and improve our understanding of this disease and its long-term impacts

"Our winter protection plan and NHS planning guidance makes clear we expect health boards to work with their partners, including GP practices, to develop and improve access to multi-professional rehabilitation services."

What is long Covid?

Long Covid, also known as post-Covid syndrome, is a condition where a person experiences symptoms more than 12 weeks after becoming infected with coronavirus.

Research by King's College London estimates one in 45 people are sick for at least 12 weeks.

Symptoms vary from person to person but can include fatigue, breathlessness, a cough that will not go away, joint pain, muscle aches, hearing and eyesight problems, headaches, loss of smell and taste as well as damage to the heart, lungs, kidneys and gut.

Mental health problems have been reported including depression, anxiety and struggling to think clearly.

More on Wales Live 22.35 GMT, BBC One Wales

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