The apparent success of the vaccine roll out and the decline in hospitalisations for those with covid is masking a significant long-term health threat for those with long covid. The latest figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) published last week show nearly 100,000 people in Yorkshire and the Humber living with this condition, with an estimated one million people in the UK suffering.
The figures suggest that the region is suffering disproportionately – an estimated 1.86 percent living with long covid, compared with the national average of 1.58 percent. And more than a quarter – some 29,000 – have been living with long covid symptoms for 12 months or more.
Long covid as a long-term disabling illness
Long covid like many things with this pandemic has been hard to track and trace. Indeed when the fires of the pandemic were really raging, all attention was paid to saving lives. Numbers were focused on those hospitalised and what happened to them. And the thing with long covid – coronavirus symptoms that last weeks or months after the infection has gone – is that the majority of sufferers do not get hospitalised.
It is a debilitating and life draining illness. A UK-wide study PHOSP-COVID, led by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Leicester Biomedical Research Centre, has analysed 1,077 patients who were discharged from hospital between March and November 2020 following treatment for Covid-19. The ten most common symptoms reported were:
- muscle pain
- physical slowing down
- impaired sleep quality
- joint pain or swelling
- limb weakness
- short-term memory loss
- slowed thinking (often referred to as ‘brain fog’).
They found a majority of patients hospitalised with Covid-19 have not fully recovered after five months. Those who experience more persistent symptoms tend to be women who are middle-aged and white, and they have at least two underlying conditions such as diabetes or heart disease. Worryingly, more than 25 percent of those studied also had symptoms of anxiety or depression.
How significant is the scale of long covid?
This has built a picture around the long-term impacts of long covid, but NOT the scale of the syndrome, exactly how many it is affecting and what sort of medical help they can expect or receive.
The importance of the ONS data is that it follows a representative group of 20,000 people who have tested positive for the virus since April 2020. In other words, the data set is much greater. The ONS research suggests that more than 1 in 10 infected with SARS-CoV-2 have gone on to get long covid. That equates to more than 16 million people worldwide.
Cost of long covid to the economy
According to a recent Yorkshire Post article, long covid could cost the UK economy around £2.5bn a year. The article focused on research being undertaken by academics from Sheffield Hallam University, looking at the effect physical activity can have on those living with long covid.
Dr Helen Humphreys, the study lead, told the paper the research offers a “heartbreaking” insight into the difficulties physical activity presents, on top of the various other long covid symptoms. She added, “one of the key messages to come out is around the whole lack of understanding around long covid and how differently long-term symptoms can vary for each individual”.
More research into long covid is now urgently needed. The NIHR announced in February that it was investing £18.5m to fund four studies of long covid according to Nature, and there are more than 60 long covid assessment clinics around the country.
Postcode lottery for long covid care and support
But there’s something of what Dr Helen Humphreys calls a “postcode lottery” when it comes to the support people with long covid receive after diagnosis.
This concern has been repeated by the all-party parliamentary group (APPG) on Coronavirus whose recent investigation uncovered a “postcode lottery of care for long covid patients living in Yorkshire, with some waiting over 100 days for treatment”. The research also found that several of the long covid clinics in Yorkshire and the Humber were “still not up and running several months after having been promised by the government”.
Sheffield Teaching Hospital NHS Foundation Trust said that the longest waiting times for patients between being referred for assessment at the long covid clinic and receiving treatment was between 14 and 15 weeks.
Layla Moran MP, who chairs the APPG on Coronavirus and led the first parliamentary debate on long covid, commented:
“These figures should serve as a wake-up call to ministers that they must urgently fix the postcode lottery of care facing those with long covid.
“Hundreds of thousands of people around the country are struggling with the debilitating impact of this condition yet are still not receiving the care they need.
“Our research has found that long covid patients are waiting over 100 days for treatment, while in some areas the clinics promised by the government have been delayed.”
Government action urgently needed
Long covid is a massive unknown that the government really needs to get to grips with sooner rather than later. This could potentially have a far greater long-term impact on both our healthcare services and our economy. This comes on top of today’s data from Public Health England showing that the Delta (Indian) variant is about 60 percent more transmissible than the Alpha (Kent) variant, with vaccines being less effective against it.
Jim McManus, vice-president of the Association of Directors of Public Health England told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme this morning that pushing back the 21 June reopening would “stop us going backwards”. He added, “If you get enough people infected, you will get a rise in hospitalisations. You will also get a significant rise in long covid, which is something we want to avoid too”.
It’s a salutary message that this pandemic is nowhere done with us yet. Despite the best efforts of health care professionals and our scientists, long covid will be leaving a long shadow over the population.