'I am on the better side of it' - MP Gwynne's long Covid battle

Friday, February 19th, 2021 5:30pm

By Charlotte Green, Local Democracy Reporter @CharGreenLDR

For Andrew Gwynne, catching coronavirus at the very start of the pandemic was just the beginning of a year long battle against its debilitating symptoms that left him looking 'close to death's door'.

By early March last year, the virus had begun to circulate widely in Europe with confirmed cases of Covid-19 rising to a ‘high’ of 87 in the UK, raising alarm among leaders.

But a full lockdown of the economy, which was then only weeks away, seemed unthinkable for most people going about their normal lives broadly unaffected by the virus.

Aware of reports of new cases emerging in London, on March 5 the Labour MP for Denton and Reddish (pictured) was concerned enough to ring NHS 111 after days of feeling fatigued and like he’d ‘just hit a brick wall’.

Following a working day in Parliament, Andrew described how he would return to his London flat and fall straight asleep, a sudden change from his normal energetic disposition that made him suspect something was wrong.

But after a classic ‘computer says no moment’, in which his Denton home address was used instead of his part-time London one, NHS call handlers ruled out Covid-19, pointing out that Tameside had not yet recorded a single case.

However just days later, the then 45-year-old broke out with several of the hallmarks of coronavirus, a persistent cough and a fever.

By that point government guidance had changed, limiting testing and advising those with the symptoms of the virus to self-isolate for two weeks. 

People were told that most would have a mild illness, and recover within around two weeks, similar to a case of flu or a bad cold.

But for Andrew, those first weeks of suffering in isolation were to be a horrible taste of the months to come.

He was to become one of the estimated 10pc of people who go onto develop ‘long Covid’ symptoms, regardless of the severity of their initial infection.

The former Tameside councillor says he has only now, almost a year on, begun to feel as though he is recovering from the lingering effects of the disease.

“The coronavirus itself was pretty grotty, it felt like my chest was being compressed, I couldn’t breathe and had a terrible niggling cough all the time,” Andrew says.

“The sweats were awful, you would leave the bed sodden and just a sheer tiredness like I’ve never experienced before.

“I just wanted to sleep, I was sleeping for the best part of 16 hours, maybe more. And when I wasn’t sleeping I had no energy to do anything anyway.

“The coronavirus eventually passed but the symptoms kept coming back and that was really the start of the long Covid battle.”

Early on he found his continuing illness was impairing his ability to represent his hometown in Parliament, a role he has served since becoming the youngest Labour MP in the House of Commons in 2005.

Constant fatigue sapped his energy to concentrate, and most challenging for Andrew was the ‘brain fog’ that filled his mind most days, and drove his family ‘around the bend’.

“It was very difficult to string a sentence that was coherent together,” he says.

“My energy levels were just rock bottom.

“Asking a simple question of a minister virtually, that’s written in front of you would literally sap what energy I had for that day, it sounds pathetic but that’s how debilitating at its worst it was.”

“I didn’t particularly have a serious case of coronavirus but was then left wiped out and good for nothing for weeks on end,” Andrew adds.

“I don’t exaggerate, I would literally do a simple task around the house like hoovering the front room and I would be covered in sweat like I’ve run the London marathon.

“On really bad occasions it would wipe you out for three days. You’d be exhausted, have blinding headaches, have no ability to get up, have terrible vertigo.”

Andrew says he was lucky to be supported in his work by his constituency and parliamentary team, who ‘moved heaven and earth’ to cover up his ‘deficiencies’ in the early months.

He also privileged to be under the care of a GP who had read up on the post-viral fatigue experienced by people in other countries after having coronavirus, and prescribed him Vitamin D and zinc tablets. 

But the biggest lesson of battling long Covid was learning to be patient with what seemed – at times – an unending struggle to return to being his previous self.

“You really did have to learn to pace yourself and that was a difficult learning exercise for me because I’m someone that’s always on the go, ideas come into your head I want to get them done and I just didn’t have the ability,” Andrew says.

“If you push yourself too far it’s like a game of snakes and ladders – you come right back down that big long snake back to the bottom and that was a really frustrating and difficult lesson for me.”

Accessing his local open space, Jet Amber Fields in Hyde, was a lifeline during his recovery and he could measure his progress by how far he was able to walk around it.

And after joining a Facebook group for people suffering with similar after-effects of Covid-19, he realised it was a much more widespread issue that was going under the radar nationally.

While still recovering himself, he began to lobby government for recognition and research into the new condition which was affecting ‘hundreds of thousands’ of people in the UK.

He continues to push for long Covid clinics to be set up in Greater Manchester to help people suffering, which Andrew says is ‘long overdue’.

The MP fears that the latest wave of the pandemic over Christmas, which saw a huge surge in infections, will also lead to a big spike in people experiencing long Covid.

“There will be increased demand for support services for people who have acquired long Covid in the second wave on top of those that are still struggling with long Covid from the first wave,” Andrew says.

“It’s very easy to just shake it off like its like having a bit of the flu and you’ll be fine after ten days or so, the reality is very different for some people.

“There is no test that says person A is susceptible to getting long Covid and person B isn’t, it literally is the luck of the draw.

“We have got a job to educate people that yes you might not die from it and hopefully you won’t, but don’t be blasé about it because you can still be seriously ill from Covid, six, 10, 12 months on.”

Though he has concerns about the long term effects of the pandemic, Andrew says he is also optimistic about the progress of the vaccine, and the impact it will have on reducing transmission.

And while 2021 hasn’t had the start many would have hoped, for the father-of-three it has been a turning point in his long Covid battle, which he flatly refused to force him out of politics.

“It’s not been the best year of my life and we cheered when 2020 ended,” Andrew adds.

“I am on the better side of it, my energy levels are back to normal now, that was the first challenge to overcome and in the last week or two the brain fog has noticeably lifted.

“I never considered stepping down, not even on my worst day because I knew at some stage it would come right – or I hoped it would.

“I love representing my home community too much. You’ve got to have something to live for, even being an MP.”

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