Long-Covid centres are to be established by the NHS to care for people suffering long-term effects of the virus.
The hubs will offer support to people suffering symptoms such as breathlessness, chronic fatigue, ‘brain fog’, anxiety and stress, officials announced on Wednesday.
Experts believe a “small but significant” proportion of patients cannot shake off some negative effects months after initially falling ill.
Sir Simon Stevens, Chief Executive of NHS England said on Wednesday the total could number hundreds of thousands.
The announcement follows the official recognition of ‘long Covid’ by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (Nice), the body which determines which treatments and drugs NHS patients are entitled to.
The face-to-face support announced on Wednesday will complement an online rehabilitation service .
It will be staffed by respiratory consultants, physiotherapists and specialist GPs.
Sir Simon, announcing £10 million to start the programme, said: “While this is still a relatively new virus, we are learning more about Covid 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.”
The new services follow the launch of the long Covid clinic at University College London Hospital (UCLH) earlier this summer, which has treated more than 900 people with long-Covid symptoms, including those who were never admitted to hospital with the illness.
Patients at UCLH may also be given cardiopulmonary exercise testing (CPET), a 40-minute test that includes patients performing graded exercise on an exercise bicycle breathing into a mouthpiece to test lung strength.
Professor Marcel Levi, chief executive of UCLH, said: “There is a growing need to understand and offer access to care especially when, as a new illness, many struggle to access adequate care through traditional routes.”
The new announcement came as Sir Simon told the NHS Providers conference that the health service would have to be “locally adaptable” and agile this winter.
“This has without doubt been the most challenging year in the history of the National Health Service, that’s what a once-in-a-century pandemic means,” he said.
“If we’re speaking frankly there are disturbing signs that infection from coronavirus are again rising, they are clearly heading in the wrong direction.
“As we look into winter we are going to have to be very agile in our response, not only to coronavirus but to winter pressures and to sustaining the wider range of services that the NHS offers.”