Lost jobs, lost income, debilitating symptoms that render even the most mundane tasks near-impossible, and huge barriers to accessing treatment: these are the repeated stories of UK doctors living with Long Covid, in response to a major survey from the BMA.
Carried out in partnership with the support group Long Covid Doctors for Action, it is the first comprehensive survey of doctors with post-acute Covid health complications (often referred to as ‘Long Covid’)1. More than 600 doctors suffering the continuing effects of Covid-19 were asked about the impact the condition is having on their health, daily lives, employment and finances.
In a report2 published today, the findings paint a stark picture of the devastating impact Long Covid is having on this group of people who were doing their job during the pandemic and deserved to be better protected – and for whom many feel completely let down by a system that they say has turned its back on them.
Key findings3 include:
- Doctors reported a wide range of symptoms, including fatigue, headaches, muscular pain, nerve damage, joint pain, ongoing respiratory problems and many more.
- Around 60% of doctors told the BMA that post-acute Covid ill health has impacted on their ability to carry out day-to-day activities on a regular basis;
- Almost one in five respondents (18%) reported that they were now unable to work due to their post-acute Covid ill-health;
- Less than one in three (31%) doctors said they were working full-time, compared to more than half (57%) before the onset of their illness;
- Nearly half (48%) said they have experienced some form of loss of earnings as a result of post-acute Covid;
- 54% of respondents acquired Covid-19 during the first wave of the pandemic in 2020, and 77% of these believed that they contracted Covid -19 in the workplace;
- A small minority of doctors had access to respiratory protective equipment (RPE) around the time that they contracted Covid-19, with only 11% having access to an FFP2 respirator and 16% an FFP3 respirator;
- More than 65% of doctors responding said their post-acute Covid symptoms had not been investigated thoroughly and effectively by an NHS long Covid clinic or centre. And almost half of doctors reported not even being referred to an NHS long Covid clinic at all.
At a time when health services face huge staff shortages, the loss of doctors from the workforce because they were not adequately protected has serious implications for the ability of the NHS to meet patient demand and ensure safe patient care.
For those well enough to return to work, the BMA says that the Government and employers not only have a moral duty to support them, but failing to do so risks making staffing problems worse.
The BMA says there must be better protection for healthcare workers, who remain at risk, ensuring adequate workplace risk assessment, as well as infection prevention and control processes in healthcare settings, against airborne transmission of Covid-19 and other pathogens. This means providing clean air everywhere in healthcare, by improved ventilation and air filtration and the provision of respiratory protective equipment (RPE).
Alongside the quantitative findings, the BMA collected first-person accounts from affected doctors, which are a cruel illustration of the ongoing pain and trauma caused by the condition:
“I nearly lost my life, my home, my partner and my career. I have received little support to help keep these. The impact on my mental health nearly cost [me] my life again.” - locum junior doctor
“I can no longer work, finances are ruined. I didn’t have employment protection so am now unemployed and penniless.” - salaried GP
“Life is absolutely miserable. Every day is a struggle. I wake up exhausted, the insomnia and night terrors are horrendous as I live through my worst fears every night. Any activity such as eating meals, washing etc will mean I have to go to bed for a few hours. I am unable to look after myself or my child, exercise or maintain social relationships. I have no financial security. Long COVID has totally destroyed my life.” - consultant
“I am almost housebound, and have had to buy a mobility scooter for the few occasions that I am well enough to get out. For the last 6 weeks I have been relying on family members to help me look after my children.” - consultant
“I can't believe after 12 months of asking it seems I'm no closer to seeing a long COVID clinic, my GP told me they'd referred me at the end of January 2021 but in reality, the admin gave up trying as I'm out of area for seemingly everywhere. They just keep giving me sick notes instead of helping me get better.” - consultant
The BMA report outlines a number of key asks4, including:
- Financial support for doctors and healthcare staff with post-acute Covid;
- Post-acute Covid to be recognised as an occupational disease in healthcare workers, with a definition that covers all of the debilitating disease’s symptoms;
- Improved access to physical and mental health services to aid comprehensive assessment, appropriate investigations and treatment;
- Greater workplace protection for healthcare staff risking their lives for others;
- Better support for post-acute Covid sufferers to return to work safely if they can, including a flexible approach to the use of workplace adjustments.
Professor David Strain, BMA board of science chair, said:
“We know that throughout the pandemic Covid-19 had a profound and often tragic impact on healthcare workers, but now this report and the heart-breaking accounts within it lay bare the debilitating effect that the virus continues to have on those doctors living with long-term symptoms.
“Contrary to what some may associate with the term ‘Long Covid’, these doctors are not just ‘a bit tired’, nor are they ‘withdrawn due to the isolation of lockdowns’. They are living with a range of serious health conditions caused by their initial Covid-19 infection, most likely caught while they were caring for others on the front line.
“Many describe not being able to do basic daily tasks like brushing their hair, cooking for their children or the basic arithmetic required to pay for items in shops, let alone go to work as a doctor with gruelling hours, and frequent complex decision-making that patients’ safety hinges on.
“Even within the medical community, it’s clear from the survey findings that there needs to be much more awareness of the range of symptoms that Long Covid encompasses, and far better availability of specialist care and support for those living with it.”
Professor Raymond Agius, BMA occupational medicine committee co-chair, said:
“During the Covid-19 pandemic, doctors were left exposed and unprotected at work. They often did not have access to the right PPE. In particular many doctors were denied effective Respiratory Protective Equipment (RPE) – ie respirators which would have considerably reduced their risk of contracting this airborne disease. Too many risk assessments of workplaces and especially of vulnerable doctors were not undertaken.
“This report underlines the devastating consequences of this lack of protection. Doctors still living with continuing symptoms have once again been left at risk with little to no support from the system that they gave so much to.
“Those well enough to return to work need support in doing so, while those who are still too sick, need adequate financial compensation to ensure they are not driven to bankruptcy by an illness they caught in the line of duty.
“Those doctors who may never work again due to the long-term effects of Covid are a huge loss to the workforce when we can least afford it.
“The Government has a moral duty to look after healthcare staff who were put at risk throughout the pandemic as well as to ensure they are never put in the same position again.”
Dr Kelly Fearnley, Long Covid Doctors for Action chair, said:
“From the start of this pandemic, UK healthcare workers have been risking their lives and health caring for Covid patients without adequate protection. A significant number are now disabled following preventable occupational exposure to SARS-CoV-2 and are being managed out of the door with no support system in place and without means to financially support themselves and their families. Not only have they lost their health and independence, they have lost their careers and livelihoods, with many now facing financial destitution.
“One would think, given the circumstances under which we fell ill and current workforce shortages, NHS employers would be eager to do everything to facilitate the return to work of people with Long Covid. However, NHS employers are legally required to implement only ‘reasonable adjustments’, and so things such as extended phased return or adjustments to shift patterns, are not always being facilitated. Instead, an increasing number of employers are choosing to terminate contracts. We feel betrayed and completely abandoned.
“Infection control guidelines are fundamentally flawed: SARS-CoV-2 is airborne. It is outrageous that three-and-a-half years into this pandemic, staff and patients are still, knowingly and repeatedly, being exposed to a level-3 biohazard – a virus known to cause brain damage and significantly increased risk of life-threatening blood complications even in those recovered. Healthcare workers must be provided with respiratory protection and the air quality in hospitals be monitored and improved through the installation of ventilation systems and air filter units.”
Notes to editors
The BMA is a professional association and trade union representing and negotiating on behalf of all doctors and medical students in the UK. A leading voice advocating for outstanding health care and a healthy population. An association providing members with excellent individual services and support throughout their lives.
- 603 doctors responded to the survey, carried out online between December 2022 and January 2023, in partnership with support group Long Covid Doctors for Action.
- Over-exposed and under-protected: the long-term impact of COVID-19 on doctors
•Of 522 doctors who answered the question “How often, if at all, does post-acute Covid ill health currently impact on your ability to carry out day-to-day activities?”, 158 (30.3%) said always, 158 (30.3%) said often, 106 (20.3%) said sometimes, 54 (10.3%) said rarely and 30 (5.8%) said never. 16 (3%) said not applicable or prefer not to say.
• Of 506 doctors who answered the question “What are your current working arrangements?”, 91 (18%) said long term sick and not currently working, 185 (36.6%) said less than full-time, 156 (30.8%) said full-time, 32 (6.3%) said locum, 28 (5.5%) said not currently working and 14 (2.8%) said retired.
• 56.5% said they were working full-time around the time they caught Covid-19, compared with 30.8% now.
• Of 521 doctors who answered the question “How has post-acute Covid ill health impacted on your earnings?”, 30 (5.8%) said they had decreased by 10%, 37 (7.1%) said decreased by 20%, 40 (7.7%) said decreased by 30%, 26 (5%) said decreased by 40%, 51 (9.8%) said decreased by 50%, 11 (2.1%) said decreased by 60%, 12 (2.3%) said decreased by 70%, 8 (1.5%) said decreased by 80%, 4 (0.8%) said decreased by 90%, 31 (6%) said decreased by 100%, 90 (17.3%) said they were likely to experience decreased/ no income soon, 178 (34.2%) said no impact and <1% said they had increased.
• Of 556 who answered the question “When did you contract acute Covid-19? (please answer with regards to the acute infection that you believe preceded post-acute COVID complications)”, 302 (54.3%) said 2020, 90 (16.2%) said 2021, 160 (28.8%) said 2022 and <1% said they didn’t know. Of 301 of those who said they caught Covid-19 in 2020 who answered a following question on whether they believed they caught Covid-19 because of their work, 231 (76.7%) said yes.
• Of the 529 doctors who answered the question “Around the time you contracted Covid-19 at work, which types of ‘Personal Protective Equipment’ (PPE) were you routinely wearing?” 57 (10.8%) said FFP2 mask, 86 (16.3%) said FFP3 mask, 6 (1.1%) said respirator, 84 (15.9%) said none, 312 (59%) said fluid-repellent surgical facemask, 145 (27.4%) said eye protection, 47 (8.9%) said long sleeved disposable plastic gown, 46 (8.7%) said surgical gown, 268 (50.7%) said apron, 300 (56.7%) said gloves and <1% said hood.
• Of 195 doctors who answered the question “To what extent do you agree or disagree with the statement….’My post-acute Covid symptoms have been thoroughly and effectively investigated by an NHS long Covid Clinic/Centre’”, 6 (3.1%) said strongly agree, 56 (28.7%) said agree, 49 (25.1%) said disagree, 80 (41.0%) said strongly disagree and 4 (2.1%) said don’t know.
• Of 525 doctors who answered the question “Have you been referred to an NHS long Covid clinic/centre?”, 41 (7.8%) said “Yes – waiting for / have received an appointment”, 194 (37%) said “Yes – have attended an appointment”, 55 (10.5%) said “No - there are no long Covid services in my area”, and 235 (44.8%) said “No”.
- See report for full list of recommendations.