Nine months ago Tony Lloyd, the Labour MP for Rochdale, was in a coma in hospital, his lungs so ravaged by Covid-19 that he had been put on life support.
For 10 days, a ventilator breathed for him as doctors from Manchester Royal Infirmary struggled to save him from a disease they were only just learning how to treat. After 25 days in hospital, Lloyd was discharged, 12kg (nearly 2 stone) lighter and too weak to walk 50 metres to a waiting car without the arm of a nurse.
A few days later, he gave an interview to the Guardian, his voice so weakened from the breathing tube that he was sometimes hard to hear. He insisted the experience had not changed him, but simply sharpened his core belief that “our society is disordered. If this pandemic doesn’t make us rethink what kind of world we want to live in then I’m not sure what will.”
Talking then, at the end of April, he said he did not know why Covid had hit him so hard. But in June, when he was still in recovery, came a clue when he was diagnosed with a rare form of blood cancer. Waldenström’s macroglobulinaemia is a type of slow-growing, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. It causes the body to produce too many abnormal white blood cells that crowd out healthy red blood cells, and could well have affected their ability to get enough oxygen to his organs.
Every three weeks for the past five months, Lloyd has been having chemotherapy in hospital, completing his last treatment a few days before Christmas. Yet reflecting on the year he has had, the 70-year-old insists he was one of the lucky ones. Greater Manchester colleagues – such as Andrew Gwynne, the Labour MP for Denton and Reddish, and Jo Platt, the former Labour MP for Leigh – also caught Covid-19 at the start of the first wave and neither are back to full health, complaining of “brain fog” and exhaustion.
“It seems there is no particular correlation between people like me who had really intense Covid, the intubation and all those things, and long Covid,” he said. “I’ve been lucky for whatever reason.”
For the past six months Lloyd has been strong enough to go for walks for half an hour or an hour each day and he pedals on an exercise bike at his home in Manchester. He was shocked by how much his muscles had wasted after his hospital spell. “Once I was conscious, the worst thing was the realisation of how frail I was. I’ve never been Mr Universe or anything, but I’d always been reasonably physically active and suddenly I couldn’t walk unassisted for even a few steps.”
There were dark thoughts, he said: “The fear was: is this it now? Is this life as it’s going to be? But of course, actually, the good thing about the human body and maybe the human mind is that you do rebuild.”
At his last check-up, about three months ago, doctors said Lloyd’s lung capacity did appear to have been damaged, but he insists he feels essentially fine. He’s not yet back to his pre-Covid weight but is happy to be slightly slimmer than before. He used to be a regular runner but has kept to walking pace after feeling his lungs might burst the one time he did break into a jog.
After being discharged, his doctor told him he was probably, but not definitely, immune and advised caution. So although he has been back working as an MP since the summer he has largely been in self-isolation. He has not ventured back into parliament, instead asking questions via Zoom and voting by proxy. He is cross with Jacob Rees-Mogg, the leader of the House of Commons, for insisting only MPs physically in the Commons are able to take part in debates.
“It feels a bit arbitrary. And means that my constituents have been denied the proper access to parliament and I feel responsible for that,” he said. “I can do 90% of the job. I could do 100% of the job if it weren’t for the stubbornness of Jacob Rees-Mogg.”
He insists he had never considered resigning and putting his health first, after spending the best part of 40 years as a politician. “But I did wonder, in the early days, whether I was capable of doing the job simply because I was very tired. And the ability to concentrate was much smaller.”
He is frustrated by what he sees as the “brutal incompetence” of Boris Johnson, who was hospitalised with Covid at the same time. Despite knowing firsthand how vicious the virus can be, he says he understands the need to balance the health of the economy with the health of the nation. “At the end of all this, we’ve got to have an economy in Rochdale. You can’t be dismissive of that.”
There is nothing like nearly dying to be reminded you’re not immortal, said Lloyd. “I can’t wait to get on a plane somewhere and I want to see my grandchildren grow up. I’ve got two – one is nearly three and the other was only born in June, and I’ve only seen her twice, at a distance. I’ve never even held her.
“There’s this recognition that you only have a certain time left … I’m 70 and as such you think, well, I’m probably not going to be around in x years’ time, so use these years wisely. Use these days wisely. That’s probably good advice for us all.”