Long Covid Scotland: Scottish Government accused of 'lack of urgency' as thousands continue to struggle with condition

Eight months ago Linda Hamlet and her husband Paul were working in the oil and gas industry, living in Aberdeenshire with their two children, aged seven and ten.

By Elsa Maishman
Thursday, 19th May 2022, 4:55 am

But then Ms Hamlet, 49, caught Covid in October. After three weeks she was left with Long Covid symptoms, including fatigue, brain fog and insomnia.

She couldn’t work and struggled to care for her sons while her husband continued to work offshore. After two months he quit his job to care for her and their children, and Ms Hamlet sold the car she no longer has the energy to to drive. Now she is still on long-term sick leave and “taking each day as it comes”.

Ms Hamlet is one of the 151,000 Scots reporting symptoms of Long Covid, according to estimates from the Office for National Statistics.

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This is 3 per cent of Scotland’s population, and more than the population of Dundee, as Jane-Claire Judson, chief executive of charity Chest Heart and Stroke Scotland (CHSS) points out.

Of these, 64,000 have had symptoms for over a year. And despite Omicron causing far fewer deaths and ICU admissions than previous strains, the numbers continue to rise.

There’s an assumption, Ms Judson says, that as variants become milder, Long Covid will just “fall away”.

But this isn’t the case and, while the Scottish Government fails to urgently and proactively address the problem, she says CHSS is hearing of more and more people forced to quit their jobs, or whose family members have stopped working to care for them.

Stuart White

Concern over the economic impact of Long Covid is increasing, especially alongside the cost-of-living crisis. The condition was discussed by the UK Parliament’s treasury select committee earlier this week, but Bank of England governor Andrew Bailey admitted experts still do not know the impact this will have.

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Brighid Ó Dochartaigh, 49, has also faced a loss of income. She caught Covid in February 2020 and, while she has seen slight improvement, she still can’t work long hours or stay up late, and rarely ventures far from her home in Edinburgh.

A geologist working for the British Geological Survey, she is now able to work two-and-a-half days a week. With no benefits, the 40 per cent cut in income has been a “big financial issue”.

Linda HamletLinda Hamlet

And like many with Long Covid, Ms O’Dochartaigh continues to wear a mask and take measures to prevent virus spread when she does venture out, as she no longer has access to sick pay.

Freja Lundberg had to suspend her degree in geography and international relations from Aberdeen university after she caught Covid in January 2021 and “just never got better”.

The 24-year-old, who lives just outside Inverness, now uses a wheelchair due to Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome (POTS), meaning her heart rate increases when she stands up.

She leaves the house once or twice a month for a wheelchair dog walk, and works three hours a week for the Museums and Special Collections team at Aberdeen University.

Professor Amitava Benerjee

Instead of dreaming of a day she might get better, Ms Lundberg tries to accept her situation “as it is”. But she is concerned the Government and health service seem to be “massively underestimating” the impact of Long Covid.

Jackie Baxter, one of a group of people running Long Covid Scotland, an advocacy group, said she believed the Government was doing “absolutely nothing” about the issue.

The current approach is “just not working”, she says, calling for more financial support, more support to help people work part-time or flexibly, and better pathways for care, as many GPs don’t seem to know where to send patients.

The 32-year-old music teacher from Glasgow got Covid in March 2020, and is still on sick leave.

Stuart White, 46, from Falkirk, has also had Long Covid since the very beginning of the pandemic.

While his condition has improved, he still suffers from some and mental fatigue, and finds he needs to take regular rest breaks from his job as a financial planner.

Brighid Ó Dochartaigh

He feels lucky as his employers have been very supportive, but he struggles at the end of a long work day to have the mental capacity to help his children, aged ten and 13, with their homework.

It comes as Humza Yousaf is set to announce the allocation of the first £3 million of a £10m Long Covid support fund in a Scottish Government debate on Thursday.

"Given the range of symptoms which can be involved, we know there’s no ‘one-size-fits-all’ response, so we have engaged with NHS boards, clinical experts and those with who have been, and are currently, affected by Long Covid to identify the support needed,” he said in a statement ahead of the debate.

“Our investment through the Long Covid Support Fund will enable boards to bolster existing services, plug any gaps in provision and improve the way they work together collaboratively for the benefit of people with Long Covid.”

The first port of call for many patients with Long Covid is the GP. But some people with the condition report their doctor being unable to take action because there is no set pathway for care, while others say they simply don’t believe in their illness.

There have been calls in the past for Long Covid clinics, like those which have been set up in England. But now many advocacy groups say they would like to see pathways from the GP to multidisciplinary teams, and a more effective referral process to other organisations.

Dr Chris Williams, joint chair of the Royal College of GPs in Scotland, said he believed it was appropriate for GPs to be the first port of call for Long Covid patients, as the condition cannot be diagnosed until others have been ruled out.

"The current approach to those who have moderate to mild symptoms post Covid-19 is to help them self-manage,” he said.

"Support is typically provided through professionals such as occupational therapists and psychologists. There is a sense that when people are afforded some help they recover quickly.”

Others do not recover so quickly and, for these patients, Scotland may need to develop secondary care services, he says.

He stresses the condition is still a relatively new one, and that health professionals are still depending on new evidence for the best approach to take.

Meanwhile, researchers are scrambling to find out more.

“We haven’t found any solution, but the solution definitely isn’t the political one, which is to ignore it,” says Amitava Banerjee, cardiologist and professor in clinical data science at University College London, who is leading a study into Long Covid.

“Unfortunately the ‘Living with Covid’ agenda has led to Long Covid being de-prioritised and that’s a problem.”

Not taking the condition seriously is “frankly negligent”, he says, and a complete relaxation of Covid rules was a mistake.

“Even though the mortality from the Omicron wave is much less, the number of people with Long Covid is persisting,” he said.

“There is evidence that vaccination reduces the risk of having Long Covid, but it doesn’t eliminate it.”

Professor Banerjee is concerned about the numbers of children with Long Covid, who are affected despite the risk being lower.

He is also aware of vulnerable patients “taking things into their own hands” buying supplements privately, or going abroad to seek treatment.

“If you’ve had this disabling condition for two years, you’ll believe what people are saying,” he says.

"You’ll do as much reading as you can, and think ‘maybe this is worth a shot’, whether that’s flying abroad or buying something over the internet. My inbox is full of stories like that.”

Mr Banerjee adds: “It’s a really false economy that people are reassured that fewer people are dying with Omicron. One thing we do know is that letting [Covid] run riot through the population is not a good thing, particularly for long-term complications … but that doesn’t fit with the messaging, and that’s the problem.”