United Kingdom

Months after falling ill with the virus, puppeteer Matthew Corbett has had to move home for care

Sooty puppeteer Matthew Corbett first experienced symptoms of Covid-19 when he popped down to the cellar to fetch a bottle of wine on his birthday.

As he came up the stairs on March 28, just days after the start of lockdown, the 72-year-old started to sweat, feel dizzy and was suddenly convinced there was a huge party going on in his home.

'The house looked as if it was full of people, they were very nice but not speaking to me,' says Matthew. 'They looked a little strange as they were all a grey colour.

'Then everything became a confused blur and my wife Sallie put me to bed, telling me there were no people.'

The party was, in fact, a hallucination, an early symptom of the virus. Within days, Matthew was admitted to hospital, suffering from a range of severe symptoms, including chest pains and pneumonia.

Seven months on, the ordeal has left him feeling breathless, fatigued and so frail that he is no longer able to do the DIY and gardening jobs he previously enjoyed.

Matthew Corbett, with Sooty (left) and Scampy (right). The Sooty puppeteer first noticed symptoms of Covid-19 March 28

Struggling to cope and with no NHS aftercare, reluctantly he and Sallie have sold their much-loved house in Cheshire and, in August, moved to a retirement village in West Sussex, closer to their three children and five grandchildren, where more help would be on hand.

Matthew's experience is not uncommon, says Professor Lynne Turner-Stokes, one of the experts who has recently begun drawing up new, fast-tracked guidelines for the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) to help the thousands of people who need follow-up care and rehabilitation after Covid infection.

Matthew Corbett on 'Lorraine' ITV, September 2015

It is estimated that 300,000 people in the UK are suffering from 'long Covid' — symptoms that endure months after their initial illness and may differ from the original symptoms — although the true number could be much higher as not all patients have sought medical help.

Those recovering at home and who have never been to hospital may have organ damage without knowing it, warns Professor Turner-Stokes, director of the regional hyperacute trauma unit at Northwick Park Hospital in London.

'We've all been surprised by the magnitude of this pandemic and its effects — and we haven't seen the end of it,' she says. 'Some parts of the country are getting their act together with aftercare, but mostly it is very patchy.'

Matthew took over as the puppeteer of Sooty, Sweep and Soo in 1976, after his father Harry Corbett, who created the trio, had a non-fatal heart attack. The Sooty Show thrived on television and stage, with the catchphrase: 'Izzy Wizzy, let's get busy!'

He retired in 1998, aged 50, having sold the brand to the Bank of Yokohama for £1.4 million, and over the next 20 years developed a number of health problems, including type 2 diabetes. However, nothing could have prepared him for the devastating impact Covid-19 has had on his health. In the days after his symptoms first appeared, Matthew developed a cough, felt weak and didn't eat for ten days because the taste in his mouth was 'fetid and disgusting'.

 On leaving hospital, Matthew (pictured with Sooty) was overjoyed to be reunited with Sallie, who had not been allowed to visit him because of Covid rules

'On April 3, six days after I became ill, Sallie called the GP as my symptoms had worsened and was told she should take me to hospital as it was an emergency,' recalls Matthew. 'I tested positive for Covid and was admitted to the intensive care unit.

'My memories of that time are hazy, but I was sweating a lot and hallucinating — I kept thinking the bed was rotating. My youngest son is a GP and followed my progress, explaining everything to Sallie and the other children.' Despite the hallucinations, Matthew was discharged three days later — a decision he now believes was a mistake.

Covid-19 has changed Matthew Corbett's life due to longterm symptoms

'I think it was too early because the hallucinations became worse,' he says. 'I was convinced that Sallie, a former sister in a psychiatric ward, was trying to get me committed to a mental hospital.

'I absolutely believed she wanted to get me sectioned and I became a bit odd, arguing a lot. She said at one point that she was frightened of me, because I was quite aggressive in insisting on certain facts.'

Eventually, Matthew spent another six days in hospital, where he was diagnosed with viral pneumonia, a complication of Covid, and atrial fibrillation, an abnormal heart rhythm. He was given antibiotics for the pneumonia and medication to regulate his heart.

On leaving hospital, Matthew was overjoyed to be reunited with Sallie, who had not been allowed to visit him because of Covid rules. Despite not needing any further hospital treatment, his road to recovery has been slow. When he tried to take his first walk to the village, 'it was traumatic', he says.

'I fell to my knees after just a few steps and had to pull myself up. Thank goodness nobody saw me.

Matthew Corbett, with Sooty (centre) and Sweep (left), celebrating 21 years with Thames TV 1990

'Worried friends and family kept ringing and wanted to hear that I was better. If I said: 'Not quite,' they would say: 'Good, as long as you're making an improvement.'

'The trouble was, I wasn't actually feeling better. A phone call that would take too long would be tiring, and still is. I have to stop talking and lie down. I have a croaky voice, with a lack of power and vocal control.'

In May, seven weeks after first developing symptoms, Matthew started to become breathless and, until August, he was also suffering visual disturbances on exertion; his vision went 'misty and dark with red spots that moved around' when he walked uphill.

HOWEVER, despite these ongoing health problems, Matthew received no follow-up care from the NHS. 'I wasn't contacted by the hospital,' he says. 'Nobody seemed interested in me.'

The key to recovering from any virus, says Professor Turner-Stokes, is not to stop doing activities, but to do them in a 'carefully paced way'.

'We need to know first if it is safe for them to do it,' she says. 'Then rehabilitation and therapies such as those offered by physiotherapists come in,' she adds. It is hoped the new NICE guidelines, expected at the end of this year, will offer this kind of help for long Covid.

The plan is to set up a network of one-stop clinics for long Covid patients where they can have a range of tests and see different specialists depending on the ways they have been affected.

And it can be complicated. As Professor Turner-Stokes says: 'Initially we thought Covid was a respiratory disease, but we now know that it can affect the heart, lungs, liver, kidneys, brain, nervous systems and muscles — you name it, Covid can affect it.'

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