As many as one in 10 patients who have been infected with SARS-CoV-2 are estimated to experience symptoms for weeks after the initial illness - with symptoms including breathlessness, chronic fatigue, anxiety and stress.
The RCGP warned last month that GPs needed 'quick and easy access' to community-based rehabilitation services for patients with long COVID - and the BMA's GP committee has also said it is essential that 'sufficient capacity is in place to support and treat' experiencing longer-term symptoms.
Speaking at an NHS Providers conference, NHS chief executive Sir Simon Stevens promised £10m funding this year 'to help kick start and designate long COVID clinics in every area across England'.
NHS England has yet to clarify when the clinics could be up and running - but says respiratory networks across the country should receive funding by the end of October, to begin rollout in line with local need over the following months.
The clinics are expected to bring together support from 'respiratory consultants, physiotherapists, other specialists and GPs' to help assess, diagnose and treat thousands of patients who need support with long COVID. They will offer physical, cognitive and psychological assessment and could refer patients on to other NHS services such as specialist lung disease services, sleep clinics, cardiac services, rehabilitation services, IAPT and other mental health services.
It also remains unclear how many of the clinics will be established. If the £10m funding funding promised for this year is split across each of England's 135 CCGs it amounts to just over £74,000 per CCG. Split across 1,250 primary care networks it would come to just £8,000.
The clinics are part of a wider strategy to increase support for patients suffering longer-term complications from the virus behind the pandemic.
NHS England has commissioned rapid advice from NICE, SIGN and the RCGP on the persistent effects of COVID-19 that will be published by the end of the year.
NICE will produce a case definition of long COVID by the end of October; and the NHS launched an online rehab service in July called 'Your COVID recovery', which could soon provide 'tailored rehabilitation plans'. GPs would be able to refer patients to the service.
Sir Simon said: 'While this is still a relatively new virus, we are learning more about COVID-19 with every passing week. It is now clear that long covid can have a major impact on the lives of a significant minority of patients weeks or months after they have contracted the virus. So just as the NHS quickly put in place specialist hospital care for acutely ill COVID patients at the start of the pandemic, now we must respond sensitively and effectively to these new patient needs.'
RCGP chair Professor Martin Marshall said: ’We’re encouraged by NHS England’s announcement of designated clinics to give patients suffering from the long-term effects of COVID the diagnostic facilities, physical and mental health support and rehabilitation they need – something the college has called for.'
He said the clinics - alongside guidance the college is working on with NICE and SIGN - 'should give GPs the confidence to deliver the most appropriate care and support to patients suffering with the long-term effects of Covid-19 in the community'.
NHS medical director for primary care Dr Nikki Kanani said: 'As a GP, I welcome this new funding to help support patients who continue to suffer the after-effects of COVID. Working with our multi-disciplinary teams in primary care, we will be able to provide clinical assessments and rehabilitation for those who need it and I look forward to working with partners across health and social care to develop the support that primary care needs to deliver this new service.'