While the healthcare system rightly initially focused on saving lives and stopping the spread of the virus, there is an array of patients that remain with unmet needs which The Community Rehab Alliance, a consortium of 22 charities and professional bodies – has submitted a joint response addressing.

Having identified that many COVID-19 survivors are being discharged without any rehabilitation plan in place, the report gives a series of recommendations for services that support rehab across a range of conditions to aid getting the country back on its feet and back to work.

It has been argued that this is a time to learn from the pandemic to shape rehabilitation services for the future, as well as addressing the weaknesses within the arguably under-developed part of the current healthcare system.

Rehabilitation is the process of assessment, treatment and management of a patient’s condition, within which they are supported to reach their maximum potential for physical, cognitive, social and physical participation in society and quality of living. Rehab needs to empower people to recover and build up resilience at their own pace which, for COVID-19 survivors is wide-ranging.

While there are some excellent examples of regional and local responses and pathway development, overall planning and guidance on COVID-19-related rehabilitation appears inconsistent and disjointed. The Rehab alliances recommends a national, strategic approach including integrated care systems carrying out audits, agreement on common rehab needs assessment frameworks and building up multi-disciplinary community rehab teams with the skills and staff required.

By redeploying the workforce – permanent and temporary – back into the community, it is more possible and likely to deliver commitments that will increase step-down rehab capacity.

During the crisis, it hasn’t been only coronavirus patients who have required healthcare. Throughout the pandemic, people are still having falls and fractures, strokes, heart attacks, preparing for cancer treatment or recovering from it, having accidents and illnesses that result in spinal cord and brain injuries and having exacerbations and acute episodes related to long term conditions, including cardiovascular, respiratory, musculoskeletal, rheumatology and neurological.

In all these situations, early, timely and sufficiently intensive rehabilitation will often be critical to people’s long-term recovery and the level of wellbeing and independence people regain or maintain. For older people timely rehabilitation is key to support people to prevent decline, optimise independence, prevent hospital admissions and the need for long-term care. Rehabilitation enables people (including key workers) to return to work and participate in society after lockdown.

During the pandemic, some essential and time-urgent elements of rehabilitation have continued, while supporting shielding and social distancing.

Local managers need consistent advice and time to assess when rehabilitation interventions are essential and on how community rehabilitation can recommence fully. National support and guidance for the provision of telehealth and digital rehabilitation options where appropriate is necessary, with professionals bodies needing to play a critical role in providing guidance on how practice might be adapted from face-to-face rehab from outpatients centres to home, as well as finding alternatives to clinic-based appointments and services.

As services recommence, there should be a positive risk approach, supporting ongoing guidance on social distancing, testing for professionals and carers, PPE at the appropriate level, and prioritisation on the phasing in of aspects of services.

The pandemic is shining a light on the poor state of community rehabilitation provision. While there are many excellent services, access to rehabilitation is a postcode lottery, with services being under- resourced and under-developed for decades. Planning and commissioning is inconsistent, and there is significant variation in standards.

There must be a plan to meet the wave of pent-up demand for health and care services that have been delayed due to the coronavirus outbreak, as well as meeting demand for additional mental health services.

As part of this plan, the Rehab Alliance recommends that there is a strategy to expand both community rehabilitation provision and, where necessary, retain planned additional capacity for step-down (bedded) rehabilitation units.

Through the forthcoming NHS People Plan, deliver an expanded rehabilitation workforce, including allied health professionals with advanced practice skills, support workers and care assistant trained to add capacity, sports and exercise professionals, postural stability instructors, coaches working in the voluntary sector and rehabilitation medicine doctors.

Because COVID-19 is a multi-systemic condition, with significant physical and mental health consequences, it illustrates very well the continued importance of shifting an approach to rehabilitation away from one that is based on neat medical specialisms and condition silos.

The experience of Covid-19 recovery should provide an impetus to adopting a personalised, multi-condition, biopsychosocial approach that can respond to the needs of increasing numbers of people having multiple conditions impacted by multiple factors. This approach needs to support greater inclusion of vulnerable and hard-to-reach groups, who have the worst health outcomes and experience barriers to services. This includes people with learning difficulties, dementia and serious mental illness.

Services need to make reasonable adjustments to make them accessible – for example, adapting communication.

The pandemic has necessitated a shift at scale to online management systems in the community and tele-health. As services get back to normal, it is highly likely, this could be continued to make this a much more prominent option for people in how they access and receive services.

This must be appropriate, evidence based and result in increase choice and access, not in greater marginalization of some groups and increased health inequality.

Learning from the experience of the pandemic should be captured by robust research and shared so that evidence underpins the future shape of rehabilitation. These should include the perceptions of the patients, staff and carers as well as their clinical effectiveness.

So while there is a certain amount of support available, the necessity to address and reform the rehabilitation services available throughout the UK is significant and immediate.

The Rehab Alliance, which includes industry bodies and charities such as Age UK, the Royal College of Psychiatrists and the UK Acquired Brain Injury Forum, is working to see a change across all rehab services offered nationwide to combat the challenges faced as a result of COVID-19 and strengthen those survivors in the best possible way, setting a new standard and practice in services that will better serve residents across the board.