The Health Foundation supported a Channel 4 documentary, Surviving COVID, to enhance understanding of the impact of COVID-19.

In this film, COVID-19 and the long road to recovery, we explore the complex care needs of people who have been severely ill with COVID-19, many of whom have gone on to experience long-lasting and serious health problems.  

We’re starting to learn more about the long-term effects of COVID, which can cause long-lasting and more serious health problems in people who only suffered a mild form of the illness when they first contracted it. But it can be devastating for those who had a serious form of the disease, especially when combined with the effects of a prolonged stay in an intensive care unit (ICU). Patients who had been in a coma, for example, must relearn how to do everyday things, from getting out of bed to feeding themselves, but can also have long term damage to a range of organs, including the lungs, kidneys and brain.

Ongoing support for individuals recovering from COVID-19 will be needed long after they are discharged from intensive care – including physiotherapy, ongoing treatment for physical damage caused by the disease, social care support to live at home and mental health care to deal with psychological impacts.  

The impact on those individuals affected is profound but what this will all mean in the longer-term for health and care services in the UK is not yet clear. What we do know is that the NHS and social care will need substantial extra resources and staff to deal with the extra demand for health care over the long term. 

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Please note that this film contains scenes that viewers may find upsetting.

Emma Ouldred [specialist nurse]: Good afternoon, Tobi. My name's Emma. I'm one of the specialist nurses here. Can I just ask you a couple of questions? OK, lovely. Can you tell me where we are? What's this place?

Tobi: Buckingham Palace.

Emma Ouldred: You know, we're at King's College Hospital.

Emma Ouldred: The thing about Tobi, he's fluctuated, so there's times when he's a lot more alert than other times. Other times he's really drowsy. So it's ongoing delirium and it's very distressing, not just for the patient but also their families and staff as well.

Anne McLoone [critical care matron]: I think the general public don't have an understanding of what patients go through. Some of our patients were in critical care for 40, 50 days. The impact that it had on them was huge. The thing that really struck me when they came out of the intensive care unit, some of them were so weak they couldn't even hold a cup or a glass. They were really, really weak and the fatigue with COVID is a lot worse than any other patient. They can't even go up the stairs.

Danielle Farrimond [physiotherapist]: That's it. Once you do the first one, that's the hardest one over and done with. Three...up. Good job. Yes! Well done!

Niall McDermott [ITU occupational therapist]: It wasn't until after week three of the first wave that we started to see this flow of patients waking up. And then we started to identify a large amount of problems. They were waking up with neurological conditions, cardiac conditions, sensory problems, visual problems.

Dr Tom Best: Virtually every organ got affected by this illness. So not only did the lungs become affected for many days and often weeks, and months sometimes, other organs like the kidneys, brain, gut all got affected as well.

Dr Rob Elias: Tobi has survived COVID, but he has been very severely affected by COVID. His kidneys failed, he has had strokes, he has had several cardiac arrests whilst being in hospital. He will not fully recover the brain function that he had before this. We're planning to discharge him with an awful lot of care and support in the community.

Ola: It wasn't a nice thing COVID did at all. It has really changed him. And sometimes I feel so selfish, like, 'Oh, did I pray this person back to life, to come and be in this shape?'.

Anne McLoone: They need a lot of physiotherapy when they come out of intensive care. They need speech and language therapists. They need psychological therapy as well. It can take well up to a year, sometimes a bit longer, to get over intensive care and to get over COVID.

Amina: No,wait. Wait, wait, gently, gently. Wait! Wait! Wait!

Niall McDermott: A large group of patients will potentially have a long disability for life. So rehab is going to be essential now going forward. We've never seen the number of patients in ICU that we've seen during wave one. You've tripled the patient cohort, you've tripled the pressure on the services.

Anne McLoone: To get physiotherapy places for patients is really, really hard. And there's a long waiting list. It is pressure on the NHS but, in the long run, it's more cost-effective.

Ola: So there's so many things to adjust to and I'm still learning to be fair. Because before COVID he was independent. He wasn't relying on someone to tell him, 'Oh, do you want to listen to music?' or, 'Do you want to watch the news?'. Those are the kind of questions I ask him really. But we are grateful for life and very hopeful.

Ola (singing): # As we gather Lord Jesus, as we gather, may we glorify your name Lord Jesus #

Surviving COVID-19 in intensive care is hard enough but this film shows how patients have a huge mountain to climb when they get home. Everyday tasks such as getting up from a chair or hugging children have to be relearned. Families have to adjust to a very changed person. They will need help for months and may never be the same again. This is the long-term loss wrought by COVID-19.
Ruth Thorlby, Assistant Director Policy, the Health Foundation

About the documentary and short film series

The Health Foundation supported a Channel 4 documentary, Surviving COVID, to enhance understanding of the impact of the pandemic.

This series of four short videos delves further into the issues raised by the documentary. They are drawn from footage captured by the filmmakers Sandpaper Films as part of Surviving COVID, along with additional perspectives and experiences. The series aims to highlight the different ways that COVID-19 has affected people, their families, health care workers and the health system.


With thanks to everyone who shared their deeply personal experiences as part of Surviving COVID.

If you have been affected by any of the issues in this video, find details of organisations that can offer help and support on the Channel 4 website:

Further reading


Surviving COVID: Behind each statistic lies a human story


In this video, individuals and their families who have directly experienced the severe effects of...


Surviving COVID: The impact of the pandemic on the mental health of NHS workers


This film illustrates the impact of the pandemic on the mental wellbeing of NHS workers and...


Surviving COVID


Surviving COVID is a Channel 4 documentary, and series of short films, supported by the Health...


COVID-19 policy tracker 2020


A timeline of the national policy and health system responses to COVID-19 in England in 2020.

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