In this interview, Patient Safety Learning speaks to Asad Khan, a doctor who has been suffering with persistent symptoms of Covid-19 for more than six months. This is also commonly referred to as Long Covid.
Asad highlights the pressing need for frontline staff with Long Covid to be better supported moving forward, in order to keep everyone safe from harm.
Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your experience of Long Covid?
I’m a Respiratory Consultant and caught Covid-19 back in November 2020, during the second wave in the UK. Since my initial infection I have suffered from persistent symptoms including palpitations, distressing skin rashes, disabling fatigue, cognitive issues and urinary incontinence. I have not yet been able to return to work.
Do you believe you caught the virus while at work?
Yes, without a doubt. I was working with infected patients and, like many frontline colleagues, became ill myself.
We didn’t have access to full PPE like Hazmat suits, and many didn’t even have FFP3 masks. Studies show this would have made a huge difference to transmission rates and to the safety of healthcare workers. 
Although the lack of access to the right supplies was slightly more understandable at the start of the pandemic, several months later when I caught Covid the handling of the situation was still not up to scratch. It’s inexcusable and has heartbreakingly cost many lives and also resulted in significant illness and disability.
How is Long Covid impacting NHS staff?
We know from ONS data at least 122,000 health service workers are suffering with Long Covid. Not only does this have huge implications for their personal health and future, but it puts further strain on already understaffed NHS.
Some staff are being well supported through their recovery, but others are being pressured to return to their usual work duties too soon, with little consideration for the relapsing nature of this condition.
What are the safety concerns if people return too soon?
There are worries for the safety of the individual, the wider team and for patients.
We know that people with Long Covid need to pace themselves to reduce the chance of having a relapse or developing new symptoms. I personally don’t feel safe returning to my previous duties until I am certain there is no risk of me collapsing in a heap on the job. This would be detrimental to my own recovery, to the care of my patients and would put additional stress onto colleagues.
We also know that many people with Long Covid suffer from neurological difficulties, also known as ‘brain fog’. Resuming duties and taking on high or complex caseloads when you feel like this, could lead to unsafe patient care.
How can staff be better supported to return to work?
Hundreds of thousands of healthcare staff contracted the virus while working to protect others. We worked on the frontline without adequate protection, not knowing the full extent of damage this virus can cause. Devastatingly, many frontline workers have died as a result.
Those who survived but have been left debilitated by Long Covid, need help and understanding. A typical 4-week phased return isn’t going to be appropriate for a condition of this nature. Recovery is not linear and there needs to be flexibility and awareness.
Reasonable adjustments will also need to be considered, possibly long term, to enable individuals to continue to contribute in ways that are feasible. For example, I might be able to support student training through virtual sessions, but I may not be physically able to do a ward round.
Currently, NHS workers with Long Covid in England are entitled to full pay for a year. No one seems to know what the plan is after. This absence of information, coupled with financial worries will no doubt see people forced to return before they are well enough.
It’s hugely concerning for individuals and their families; much more needs to be done to forward plan and offer reassurance. This needs to come from the top.
Clearly our health service is facing unprecedented challenges, but Long Covid isn’t going to magically disappear. Cases are likely to rise and without due consideration, staff with Long Covid are likely to be left feeling abandoned and unsupported.
Surely, they deserve better?
- Long Covid Minister needed to respond to growing crisis
- My experience of suspected 'Long COVID' (By Dr Jake Suett)
- Post COVID-19 syndrome: What support can patients expect from their GP?
 Butler M, Inkster T, Foster C, et al. Effect of Implementation of Aerosol Respiratory Protective Equipment, Vaccination and Natural Infection on a Covid-19 Cohort Ward: A Retrospective Observational Cohort Study. OSF Preprints, 13 May 2021.