Senior Policy Analyst
Head of Policy & External Affairs
26 August 2020
For 11 million people affected by asthma and lung conditions, concerns about coronavirus risk are still running high. Difficult decisions about going to hospital or returning to work are adding to your anxiety, according to our summer COVID survey. But there is some good news too. Here are five headlines.
1. Anxiety about coronavirus increased in summer
Despite the decreased levels of infection and deaths, people with asthma and lung conditions continue to be anxious about COVID-19 – in fact, your anxiety has increased since the spring. 69% rated your anxiety 8,9 or 10 on a scale of 1-10, compared to 56% in May. While the lockdown period in March and April disrupted all our lives, it felt like everyone was in the same boat. As lockdown restrictions lifted, the clinically vulnerable have felt left behind, unable to enjoy the same freedoms yet more exposed to risk. Shielders were particularly anxious about the pause in shielding announced in July – 79% were 8,9 or 10 on the anxiety scale about shielding support being lifted.
2. Catching coronavirus has affected your breathing long term
More people said they had had coronavirus symptoms since February – 714 people, or 8.6% of respondents – despite all the measures to stay safe. Worryingly, the numbers reporting long-term breathing problems after having coronavirus symptoms increased since May, with 58% (up from 37%) saying their breathing was worse or much worse. This reflects what we’re seeing with the long-term effects of catching the virus, in our Post-COVID HUB survey. We have written to the Chief Medical Officer, Dr Chris Whitty, to highlight the effects of “long COVID” on people’s lung and mental health.
3. Delaying care is harming lung health
It’s understandable that people feel nervous about seeking care, but for people with a lung condition this is highly risky. Regular care is important to check your management and symptoms, while an attack or exacerbation is often a sign that your condition is getting worse. One in three of you delayed or avoided seeing your GP or going to hospital – either because you don’t feel safe, or you don’t want to over-burden services – of whom a quarter said your symptoms got worse. 39% of you experienced an asthma attack or lung disease exacerbation since the start of the pandemic, but most did not seek help even though this could prevent a potentially fatal deterioration.
Most advice can be provided remotely without risking infection, and if you do need face-to-face care the NHS is implementing very stringent safety policies to protect you. We’re now calling for the NHS to set out a plan to ensure that patients with lung conditions have access to the full range of services available, and are actively reassured by the NHS that they will be safe to use during the pandemic and in the event of a second wave of the virus.
4. People are concerned about the lifting of shielding – especially for workers
Two out of three people who took the survey thought that shielding was being “paused” too early – although there was more trust in the government’s approach in the devolved nations. As we’ve explained, four in ten shielders plan to continue to shield despite the end of official advice and support.
The overwhelming majority of you (94%) thought that people who were shielding should have the right to stay out of the workplace – either through choice or if their workplace was not “COVID-secure” – with their income protected. The reality for many is that you are expected to return to work even if you don’t think it’s safe, and the furlough scheme will end in November removing any protection for those whose workplaces are still too risky. One in seven say you could lose your job as a result, and a third have already lost income – rising to half of people with asthma and lung conditions on low incomes.
Asthma UK and the British Lung Foundation are campaigning on this in the media, and working with other charities affected to extend the furlough scheme for clinically extremely vulnerable who cannot return to work safely.
5. Good progress on quitting for COVID and the flu jab
We also found positive news, with higher numbers of smokers (63%) telling us that they have successfully quit, or are currently trying to quit, in the July survey. This reflects the stories we’ve shared of people taking this step to protect their lung health during this period of change. However, more smokers who quit / are trying to quit are doing so on their own (47%) than in May (35%). You have a better chance of quitting if you get support from the NHS or your local pharmacist.
With a potential second wave of coronavirus this winter, alongside the usual winter peak for flu, hospitals could be overwhelmed with 80% more respiratory hospital admissions in winter than summer. Flu is a major trigger for asthma and lung disease in winter, but uptake of the flu vaccine is usually low. One positive finding is that the flu vaccine uptake may increase this year, as 89% of you say you are planning to get the flu jab and over half say you were more likely to get vaccinated because of COVID-19. We are calling for a publicity campaign to raise awareness of how to get the vaccine, and to extend uptake amongst care home staff, to protect the most vulnerable.
Thank you to the thousands who took part in the survey and shared your views throughout the pandemic. Asthma UK and the British Lung Foundation will continue to listen to your stories and represent your voice in the media and at the heart of government.
The survey had 8,268 respondents between 10th July and 15th July 2020.