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Coronavirus: Estimated 1.3 million people in UK suffering from long COVID, ONS figures show

An estimated 1.3 million people living in the UK are suffering from self-reported long COVID, data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) shows.

The figures, valid from 9 November to 6 December, represents around 2% of the population.

According to the ONS, prevalence of self-reported long COVID remained greatest in those who were:

  • Aged 35 to 69 years
  • Female
  • Living in more deprived areas
  • Working in health, social care or teaching and education
  • With another activity-limiting health condition or disability

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And, 64% of people with self-reported long COVID said their symptoms affected their daily activities, while 20% said it limited their daily activities “a lot”, the ONS said.

Long COVID symptoms vary from person to person, but many who experience them do not require hospital treatment.

Some studies have found 10% of people who have mild COVID-19 will go on to have long COVID, but other studies have estimated as many as 35% will.

What is long COVID?

Daily activities ‘limited’

The latest ONS figures show that of the people with self-reported long COVID, 270,000 (21%) first had, or suspected they had, COVID-19 less than 12 weeks previously.

And around 892,000 people (70%) first had the virus at least 12 weeks previously, while 506,000 (40%) first had it at least one year previously.

The report found that symptoms adversely affected the day-to-day activities of some 809,000 people (64% of those with self-reported long COVID), with 247,000 (20%) of people reporting their day-to-day activities had been “limited a lot”.

Fatigue continued to be the most common symptom reported in people experiencing long COVID (51%), followed by loss of smell (37%), shortness of breath (36%), and difficulty concentrating (28%).

The ONS analysis was based on 351,850 responses to the Coronavirus (COVID-19) Infection Survey (CIS), which was collected over a four-week period ending 6 December 2021.

Self-reported long COVID was defined as symptoms persisting for more than four weeks after the first suspected COVID infection that was not explained by something else.

Vaccine ‘reduces’ chances of long COVID

Dr David Strain, Senior Clinical Lecturer, University of Exeter, said the data suggests that the vaccination programme has reduced the risk of people experiencing long COVID.

He said: “The fact that these figures have not risen commensurate with the number of cases of Delta that we saw last year supports the hypothesis that the hugely successful vaccination programme reduced the risk of progressing to long COVID in addition to reducing the risk of hospitalisation and death from the acute illness, or that those left with these long terms symptoms do continue to improve and ultimately resolve, albeit beyond 12 months.

“It most likely a combination of the two, which is good news in either case.”

But he added that the “stark warning” was that over 800,000 people have had their day-to-day activities significantly affected over three months after catching COVID in previous waves, with nearly a quarter of a million people reporting dramatic impacts on their quality of life.

“As we continue to see case numbers of Omicron rise, we must be wary that our reliance purely on hospitalisations and death as a measure of the risk from COVID could grossly underestimate the public health impact of our current COVID strategy,” he added.

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