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16 December 2020

Why long Covid is a bigger problem than previously thought

New data suggests coronavirus continues to affect at least one in five people for more than a month, and nearly one in ten for at least three months.

By Michael Goodier

New figures have shown that “long Covid” – the symptoms some people suffer for weeks or months after infection – is far more of a problem than early estimates suggested.

Data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) shows Covid-19 continues to affect at least one in five people for more than a month, and nearly one in ten for at least three months. Lingering coronavirus symptoms can include fatigue, headaches, lack of breath and loss of taste and smell, and can make returning to work difficult.

The ONS – which has begun tracking the long-term impact of the disease – found 21 per cent of people who had Covid-19 were showing symptoms five weeks after infection, and just under a tenth (9.9 per cent) 12 weeks after infection. 

In total, during the last week of November, around 186,000 people in private households in England were living with symptoms that had persisted for between five and 12 weeks. The New Statesman has previously reported on the phenomenon of “long Covid” or “long-haul Covid”, which has left people suffering symptoms months after their original infection.

The ONS figures suggest it is a larger issue than previously thought. A pre-print (non-peer-reviewed) paper – using data from the Zoe Covid-19 tracker app – found in October that 4.5 per cent of people were suffering symptoms lasting more than eight weeks, and just 2.3 per cent had symptoms lasting over 12 weeks. 

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Dr David Strain of the University of Exeter, who works on the British Medical Association (BMA)’s long Covid task force, said the figures were in line with what he had previously seen among members of the medical profession who had caught Covid, but not the general public.

He said: “These preliminary data are very concerning, suggesting that 10 per cent of people who have experienced Covid are left with residual symptoms after three months – more than twice the rate than we previously thought.” He added: “The ONS figures were more in keeping with what we have found surveying doctors with the BMA.”

Dr Strain himself has been off work for eight weeks after contracting the virus – and has been struggling to return to normality, even with childcare support. He said: “My brain is actually nearly as good as it used to be, but my physical fatigue is terrible.”

[see also: The Christmas rules are a far bigger danger than Covid-19 variants]

This mirrors the new ONS data, which found the most common symptoms reported by patients after five weeks were fatigue (11.5 per cent), a cough (11.4 per cent) and headache (10.1 per cent). Just over 8 per cent had not recovered their taste after five weeks, while 7.9 per cent were still unable to smell – both of which are common symptoms at diagnosis. Only 6.7 per cent still had a fever.

Early evidence shows that the risk factors in developing long Covid are not the same as those of people becoming seriously ill and dying in wards (with obesity, diabetes, age and ethnicity the factors particularly linked to deaths).

Dr Strain said: “With long Covid it’s happened to anybody. This is happening to younger people, more women than men – basically the population that were suggested to be at lower vulnerability from the initial disease, and therefore have been taking roles with higher hazard of coming into contact with the virus.

“The long-term consequences for these individuals, and for the population as a whole, could be devastating, in terms of physical manifestations for the individuals but also the economic impact of these individuals being unable to work.”

The ONS said: “Although this research is in its infancy, we felt it important to publish our early results in order to fill an important gap in the evidence base, and to provide a basis for discussion from which to inform the future direction of the research.”

It added: “This is our first attempt at producing these estimates, and the analysis is very much a work in progress.”

[see also: Journal of a plague year]