Andrew Gwynne – 2022 Speech on Long Covid

The speech made by Andrew Gwynne, the Labour MP for Denton and Reddish, in the House of Commons on 31 March 2022.

I sincerely thank the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran) for all the work she has done on this issue, and for the way she opened this debate. I also thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting it and the Members who have taken part. I thank in particular my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams), and I sincerely thank my hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson) for his kind words. It is nice to know that my experiences have helped somebody else with theirs, and I wish his family member well for the future. I also thank the hon. Member for North East Fife (Wendy Chamberlain), and my hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson), who is absolutely right to draw parallels with ME both in some of the symptoms and in how that community has been treated over a number of years. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon)—because he is my friend—for his kind words, too.

As colleagues will know, not least because it has been mentioned in this debate, long covid is an issue very close to my heart. Back in March 2020, I first caught covid. That was 107 weeks and four days ago, and I am still struggling with some of the symptoms of long covid all these weeks and days later. Back then, I felt rough with covid, but to my relief I avoided a lot of the more serious symptoms we were seeing on the news and hearing from friends and colleagues at that time. It was not great, but the fact that I was not hospitalised was a blessing.

However, when my self-isolation period ended and in theory I should have been fine to return to work, I found that I could not. I found that I was perpetually exhausted, and I could not catch my breath. I would be talking to my wife, and suddenly the words would vanish. I would try to pick them out, but I could not find the right ones. I would forget things and lose track of why I had come into a room. I would sweat as though I had run the London marathon just doing routine day-to-day things such as making a cup of tea. I felt completely terrified. My symptoms were not going anywhere, but instead evolving into something different and seemingly something permanent.

In May 2020, Elisa Perego coined the term “long covid” to describe these persistent and wide-ranging symptoms, and I felt like a bright light had been shone on what I had been going through. We now know that over 1.5 million people suffer with long covid in the United Kingdom, and that the majority of these—989,000—say it affects their daily activities. It certainly affected mine. I am very fortunate to have a brilliant team across Westminster and in my constituency of Denton and Reddish, and they stepped up on my worst days, when getting out of bed felt like running a marathon. They made sure that my constituents were still well represented, and that I was given sufficient time to rest when needed. Listening to my body was a hard lesson, too.

However, millions of people in this country are not as fortunate as I was. We have some of the worst sick pay provision in the OECD, and we are in an age of precarious work. In that context, long covid becomes an economic as well as a health emergency. The fact of the matter is that there has been an acute failure on the part of Government to take long covid as seriously as perhaps they should, because it is not just a health issue, but an employment and a DWP issue. The Government could and, I believe, should be doing more to encourage workplaces to better support those suffering from long covid and to enable employers to understand precisely what long covid means for their workforce.

For December 2021 to January 2022, the most recent period we have access to, it has been shown that, of the 1.5 million people currently suffering from long covid, only 2,869 had attempted to access the post-covid assessment service. Of that tiny number, 34% had been waiting for longer than 15 weeks. Something is going very wrong. Almost 1 million people are reporting long covid symptoms that are adversely affecting their day-to-day lives, yet just a fraction are attempting to access care and only a fraction of those are actually getting it. I would be grateful if, in his response, the Minister set out what conversations he has had with colleagues in the Department of Health and Social Care about these figures, and what action the Government will be taking to ensure that those who have long covid can actually access the care they desperately need.

This is actually quite crucial because, with the right rehabilitation package, work can become viable again for a proportion of those people. I want to share with the Minister some data I have received from Nuffield Health. Operating a free 12-week programme, it has so far helped over 1,900 people from across the UK to recover from the prolonged effects of covid-19, including breathlessness, anxiety and fatigue, and I am one of the 1,900 who have taken part in that free programme. Its results to date show that for 64% of people the programme improved mental wellbeing, for 39% it improved their functional capacity and for 39% it improved their breathlessness, while 35% saw an improvement in fitness and 30%—not an insubstantial number—were absent from work but felt they could return. This is not a silver bullet for all, because those are still minority figures, but I think that 30% being able to return to work with the right rehabilitation programme is quite encouraging.

As has been pointed out on numerous occasions, 4% of the UK workforce currently have long covid. That is an extraordinarily high number of people, and it will no doubt be having an impact both on workplace productivity and on wider employment outcomes. The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development has found that a quarter of UK employers cited long covid as one of the main causes of long-term sickness among their staff, yet those living with long covid have had very little in the way of workplace protection.

In my capacity as shadow Minister for public health, I have been inundated with stories of employees facing an uphill battle to have reasonable adjustments implemented in their workplaces. I have heard from doctors unable to return to work and NHS staff who have been sacked or had contracts terminated because of long covid symptoms. They are the people who carried us through the pandemic—we stood on our doorsteps for them and applauded them. We can do much better than that.

I turn to the help that I had in returning to work. I pay tribute to Mr Speaker and the staff in the Speaker’s Office, because I am lucky enough to work in an environment where reasonable adjustments were made. When I first returned to the House in person after the summer recess, I found that I could not bob in the Chamber without becoming incredibly fatigued, and that would trigger my brain fog. After almost collapsing during a ministerial statement on Afghanistan—I had been bobbing for almost an hour—I arranged for a meeting with Mr Speaker on the basis that I could not do my job and, if I could not do a simple task like bobbing up and down, I might as well pack up and leave. Mr Speaker and his brilliant staff advised me that instead of rising on each occasion, I could simply hold up my Order Paper. That simple solution made a huge difference to my health and wellbeing. I sincerely thank Mr Speaker, and indeed you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and the staff in the Speaker’s Office for being so understanding.

However, reasonable adjustments should not just be made for Members of Parliament. The Government need to do much more to empower employees to approach their bosses and have these conversations. The problem is that, with practically zero workplace protections in place for long covid, they become incredibly difficult to have.

The Opposition recognise the threat that long covid poses both to the health of this nation and to the British workforce. That is why we would end the postcode lottery of long covid care provision, fix the shameful state of sick pay and engage with employers to support those living with long covid. Covid has not gone anywhere, and it is profoundly irresponsible to stick fingers in ears and pretend that 1.5 million people are not still struggling. Free lateral flow testing will end tomorrow and, as a result, covid cases will rise. It will make it much harder to track the level of covid in the UK and, by extension, the number of people who may go on to develop and live with long covid.

Layla Moran

I am glad that the hon. Member has brought up that point. He will have heard about the difficulties that people have in accessing benefits and proving that they have long covid. People get long covid from covid, but, if they cannot get a test, how do they know if they have had covid? That makes it so much more difficult for people to prove long covid down the line and access the benefits that they deserve.

Andrew Gwynne

The hon. Lady is absolutely right. That is a real concern of mine, not least because I have experienced it. I was in the first wave of covid, having caught it in the weeks when the Government said, “If you develop symptoms, you no longer need to test; just go into self-isolation.” I knew that I had covid, and I know that that led to long covid, but to this day I cannot prove it because there was no routine testing available to show it. That is a real issue.

I am incredibly worried that getting rid of free testing is a short-term decision that will have major financial and public health implications for the foreseeable future. The Government cannot turn a blind eye to a problem that is having a devastating impact on the people of this country. One of the defining lessons of the pandemic is that we do not have the luxury of dithering and delay when it comes to public health. We urgently need a cross-departmental long covid strategy. I would support that, work on it and gladly give my experience and advice to Ministers to help develop it. We need a long covid strategy, we need proper sick pay, and we need the Government to understand that they have an important role in working with business and industry to ensure that reasonable adjustments and support in the workplace become a thing for all, not just for me.