‘Long Covid’, NHS pride and casework: Labour MPs recovering from coronavirus

Sienna Rodgers

Andrew Gwynne

“I’ve had some pretty horrid days over the past 17 weeks, but the last couple of days have been OK. I’ve been pacing myself so as not to overdo it.” I’m speaking to Andrew Gwynne, the Labour MP for Denton and Reddish and former shadow cabinet member. He is telling me about his experience of contracting coronavirus back in March.

Explaining the symptoms he experienced, the MP tells me: “I only had a fever for one of the days. It lasted about 24 hours. But it was this feeling of someone pushing down on your lungs, couldn’t get proper lung capacity, banging headaches, and just fatigue all the time.”

Although the coronavirus passed, the illness hasn’t. Andrew has reported enduring effects of coronavirus. “I’ll be dripping like I’d run a marathon just from hoovering the front room. Sheer exhaustion all the time. And brain fog.

“When the brain fog descends, it’s horrible. I’ll ask my wife what’s for tea, and she’ll tell me. Five minutes later, I’ll say: what are we having for tea? She’ll say ‘I’ve told you’ and I can’t remember.”

It feels “incredibly frustrating”, Andrew says, particularly when trying to work. “It’s sometimes difficult to get the words that you want. You can see them in your head and you’re grasping for them but you can’t reach them. And if you do reach them, you can’t put them in the right order to make a coherent sentence.”

He adds: “I’ve felt that doing some of my questions remotely on parliamentary proceedings,” And after a few mid-sentence pauses: “Even talking to you now, and it’s not a bad day today, I am struggling to find the words of what to say and put them in the right order.”

While not reported as a symptom of Covid-19, Andrew says brain fog is known as a symptom of being a “long-hauler” or of having “long Covid”, which can also leave him “wiped out for the rest of the day” after doing a single parliamentary question from home. He is raising awareness of this phenomenon, and wants the government to provide more support for long-haulers who are currently having to rely on Facebook groups.

“What worries me is that as the economy switches back on, there’ll be lots of people who aren’t in a privileged position like I am, to be able to sit in my study, do a Zoom question to a minister and go back to bed,” Andrew says. He is very concerned that if the Department of Work and Pensions does not recognise ‘long Covid’, “people who are genuinely ill are going to end up with sanctions”.

Tony Lloyd

“You probably know that I was on a ventilator in hospital and all the rest of it,” Tony Lloyd begins our conversation. “In that sense, really, it was life and death.” The Rochdale representative, who has served in parliament for 37 years, had perhaps the most serious case of coronavirus of all MPs. It required a 25-day hospital stay in April, including ten days in an induced coma.

Somewhat surprisingly, however, Tony – while tired – doesn’t suffer from the kind of exhaustion experienced by Andrew Gwynne. He stresses this at the start of our interview, but then adds that he is going in for a “post-Covid MOT” next week involving lung function tests. “Maybe they’re going to say to me, bloody hell, you’re lucky to be walking around.”

Tony is glad to see Labour MPs such as shadow minister Alex Norris push the government to look into the long-term effects of coronavirus, yet in terms of his personal Covid experiences, the main takeaways relate to the NHS and frontline workers.

“You’ve got to come away with a deep sense of humility, really. I’d got the condition but I had people looking after me, from the specialist consultants all the way through to the guy who chatted to me when he was cleaning the Covid ward, who were putting themselves at risk.”

The MP describes “little acts of kindness”, such as a nurse cutting his hair and one nursing assistant who gave him a couple of masks as he was leaving and said, “I think you’ll be needing those in the future”. He says: “It’s almost at a trivial level, but just people who genuinely wanted to be there for you.”

Noting that race is important in conversations about the NHS, Tony says that as he left hospital a Nigerian British nurse helped carry his belongings. “As she dropped it at the door, she clapped me off the premises. Things like that are not just endearing – they make you humble… You can’t buy that. We’re foolish if we’re prepared to give that up.”

Explaining how the experience shaped his view of the NHS, Tony said: “On the left we’re proud of the NHS, we have a rightly romantic view of the NHS. But actually seeing it’s done by real people and the culture is an embedded one, it does make you realise what a fantastic organisation we have. It’s way beyond the organogram or the financial streams or even the intellectual medical systems. I almost want to say it’s driven by… well, I’d like to say love, actually.”

Lloyd Russell-Moyle

The Brighton MP was on a train to France when I contacted him, so we just had a quick chat over WhatsApp. He had already written in detail about experiencing Covid for his local paper back in March.

“Sweats, headache, backache, muscle ache and a sore throat” – Lloyd got the whole lot. With a tight chest and shallow breathing, shivers that became hot sweats, he was given the all-clear after 14 days. Compared to the flu, it was “worse but not much worse” for him. Post-recovery, he is once again able to continue swimming daily.

Lloyd says he hadn’t been scared by reports of overloaded hospitals in Italy, and he wasn’t worried about testing positive for Covid-19 either. “Being HIV positive means I know it’s much better to be tested than not, so treatment can be adjusted,” he tells me.

Has he considered getting an antibody test? Although Lloyd had a number of tests, he says he never got a result and only found he was positive for Covid-19 by mistake when talking to his doctor about something else.

“I did get a call last week saying they would like me to donate blood because they want to look at blood with antibodies, so I assume I have them. I wear masks and take precautions… I feel safe enough but I’m aware that might be false confidence.”

Kate Osborne

Kate Osborne, the newly elected representative for Jarrow, was the first Labour MP to publicly say that she had tested positive for Covid-19 in early March. Andrew had a fever for just one day, and similarly a high temperature wasn’t a main feature of Kate’s coronavirus experience.

“My main issues were around my breathing, my respiratory system, I struggled and felt out of breath even when I was just sitting in the chair. And generally felt unwell. I didn’t end up in hospital, although at one point I think I was quite close. It was a little bit scary, I suppose, because I was on my own,” she tells me. The new MP self-isolated alone in her London flat for three weeks.

“I have to say that I think I’m still actually suffering to a degree with what they’re now calling long Covid. I’m still not quite right. And I’m having days where I’m really struggling. Others not so.”

She adds: “I think that the true effects of Covid aren’t really known to us in terms of the long term. And that’s quite scary in terms of not just how individuals might feel and deal with that, but also how that might impact on our NHS, on people’s work and their personal life.”

Asked about her long Covid symptoms, Kate explains: “I’m tired a lot of the time. I don’t know whether that’s because I’ve not really had a break since the election in December. Maybe a heavy workload, it could be that. But I kind of get the feeling it’s not. So I would say fatigue.” She also lists an upset stomach, weight loss and headaches. “But fatigue is the worst thing.”

“Even though I had it quite mildly, I did find it quite scary. I’m fairly fit and healthy. To find that you’re having breathing problems, knowing that some people have died from it, not knowing at what point you’re going to get better, it’s scary.”

Kate points out that she was fortunate not to have to worry about her income and paying bills, however, and says her office has been “inundated” with casework. As a 2019 intake MP, she can’t compare this to pre-Covid times, but colleagues have told her that the level of constituent help needed has been off the scale. “We’ve tried to do it as quickly as we can, and everybody’s emails are important,” Kate says of her office’s caseload. “Trying to prioritise is quite difficult. Sometimes I don’t know how you do that. Because everybody’s issues are important, aren’t they?”

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