An action plan to support patients with long Covid symptoms within six weeks – while reducing related GP workload – has been announced today by NHS England.
The plan, promised by a health minister for spring, will allow GPs as well as specialist long Covid clinics to refer patients for tests and checks at local one-stop-shops and mobile clinics, and is intended to prevent people having to go back to their GP practice for multiple different tests.
A £90m investment will enable the plan’s ambition for all patients to have an initial assessment within six weeks to ensure rapid diagnosis and treatment, NHS England said.
However, NHS leaders warned that the six-week target will heap more pressure on secondary care services.
The plan reiterates NHS England’s commitment to setting up 90 specialist long Covid clinics across England, 14 hubs for children and young people, and investing in training and guidance to assist GP teams managing the condition in patients.
The clinics are aimed at patients with more severe symptoms, as many people with long Covid symptoms will fully recover with help from their community healthcare or GP team.
NHS England said the long Covid centres offer ‘a comprehensive multidisciplinary service’ with ‘physical, cognitive and psychological assessments and management’ and the ability to refer patients for ‘further rehabilitation, treatment and other support’.
NHS England added that if patients ‘remain concerned, or are not recovering as expected’ after accessing online services, they should contact their GP team.
ONS data shows that 1.6 million people in England are suffering Covid symptoms lasting more than four weeks, with roughly one in five saying it has a significant effect on their daily life.
Dr Kiren Collison, GP and chair of the NHS long Covid taskforce said: ‘Long Covid can be devastating for those living with it, and while we continue to learn more about this new condition, it’s important people know they’re not alone, and that the NHS is here for them.
‘In just under two years, the NHS has invested £224m to support people experiencing long term effects from Covid – from setting up specialist clinics, hubs for children, and an online recovery platform, to providing training for GP teams.
‘Today’s plan builds on this world-leading care, to ensure support is there for everyone who needs it, and that patients requiring specialist support can access care in a timely and more convenient way.’
However, Dr Layla McCay, director of policy at the NHS Confederation, warned that the Government’s ambition might be hard to implement.
She said: ‘Already our members have described referrals to Long Covid clinics as being swamped by demand so with waves continuing, they are worried about how their teams will be able to keep up and ensure people aren’t left waiting after their initial referral.
‘In the face of a workforce crisis and huge ambitions to clear the waiting lists, health leaders will be wondering how these specialist clinics will be staffed, particularly as frontline workers are at an increased risk of getting the virus themselves.’
NICE published its final guideline on long Covid in November last year, which said GPs should consider referring patients with long-term symptoms of Covid-19 to specialist clinics as soon as four weeks after acute infection after ruling out other diagnoses.
This article was updated at 15.08 on 28 July 2022 to reflect changes in NHS Confederation’s comment.