The 1.1 million reported cases of long Covid is a ‘clear reminder’ of the additional pressures being placed on NHS teams, the NHS Confederation has said.
The statement was made in response to data published by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) on 1 April, which estimated that more than one million people in the UK were reporting symptoms associated with long Covid at the beginning of March 2021.
Layla McCay, director of policy at the NHS Confederation, said: ‘These figures are a clear reminder of the real risk of how Covid-19 can continue to affect people’s lives long after the first symptoms.
‘That so many people are reporting possible long Covid also reminds us of the additional pressure on NHS teams associated with these new and longer-term health problems, especially for community services and primary care.’
These self-reported cases were in addition to a ‘rapidly growing demand for mental health services’ and alongside a treatment backlog also caused by the pandemic, she noted.
She also flagged the anticipated ‘hidden’ backlog of people yet to come forward and be referred for treatment, which the Confederation suggests could reach 6.9 million patients by the end of the year.
She added: ‘NHS organisations are working hard to improve access and maximise capacity so that they can provide care to as many people as possible. But the Government must be honest with the public about the scale of the challenge facing the NHS and also provide the investment needed to tackle issues like long Covid alongside all the other pressures on the health service.’
Day-to-day impact for 670,000 people
Across the four-week period ending on 6 March 2021, around 1.1 million people in the UK self-reported experiencing Covid symptoms persisting more than four weeks, the ONS said.
Of this number, 674,000 people felt their symptoms were adversely affecting their day-to-day activities.
Additionally, 697,000 people first had Covid-19 at least 12 weeks prior, with 70,000 reporting they had first contracted Covid-19 one year previously.
Prevalence rates were greatest particularly among those living in deprived areas and with a pre-existing, activity-limiting health condition.
There is currently no universally agreed definition of long Covid, but it is understood to cover a range of symptoms including fatigue, muscle pain and difficulty concentrating.
In its report, the ONS said: ‘These estimates provide a measure of the prevalence of self-reported long Covid across the whole population, and reflect both the risk of being infected with coronavirus and the risk of developing long Covid following infection.’
It noted that in a sample of more than 20,000 study participants – who tested positive for Covid-19 between 26 April 2020 and 6 March 2021 – 13.7% continued to experience symptoms for 12 weeks at least. This was eight times higher than the control group, who it said are unlikely to have had Covid-19.
ONS said that this suggests ‘the prevalence of ongoing symptoms following coronavirus infection is higher than in the general population’.