Almost one in seven people who test positive for Covid-19 are still suffering symptoms three months later, according to new UK figures.
The largest study of its kind on long Covid from the Office for National Statistics (ONS), found people with coronavirus are significantly more likely than the general population to report ongoing issues, which can include muscle pain and fatigue.
Among a sample of more than 20,000 people who tested positive for Covid-19 between April last year and March this year, 13.7% continued to experience symptoms for at least 12 weeks.
This was eight times higher than in a control group of people who are unlikely to have had Covid-19, the ONS said.
Women were more likely than men to report long Covid at the 12-week point – with 14.7% doing so compared with 12.7% of men.
Prevalence of long Covid was also highest among those aged 25 to 34 (18.2%) than other age groups.
From a larger sample of people with and without Covid tests, the ONS estimated that 1.1 million people in private households in the UK experienced long Covid in the four weeks to March 6.
Of these people, an estimated 697,000 first had Covid-19 – or suspected they had Covid-19 – at least 12 weeks previously, while 70,000 first had the virus or suspected they had the virus at least one year ago.
Long Covid was estimated to be adversely affecting the day-to-day activities of 674,000 people, with 196,000 reporting that their ability to undertake day-to-day activities had been limited a lot.
Of those self-reporting long Covid, those aged 35 to 69 were most affected, as were women, people living in the most deprived areas, those working in health or social care and those with a pre-existing condition.
Health and social care workers experienced the highest prevalence rates of self-reported long Covid among employment groups (3.6% and 3.1% respectively), followed by those working in personal services (2.8%), civil service or local government (2.7%) and teaching and education (2.5%).
For people living in the most deprived areas the rate was estimated at 2.1%, while for those in the least deprived areas it was 1.4%.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock said he is “very worried” about the impact of long Covid and that the Government is investing more in tackling and understanding the condition.
He told Sky News: “We can see the impact in these new statistics shown today and I understand the impact it has had on hundreds of thousands of people.
“It’s one of the many damaging problems of this virus.
Mr Hancock added that while people should “enjoy the sunshine”, it is “yet another reason for everybody to be cautious”.
In February Mr Hancock announced an £18.5 million funding boost for four major studies into the long-term effects of coronavirus.
Liberal Democrat MP Layla Moran, who is chairwoman of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Coronavirus, said: “These figures reveal the devastating impact of long Covid across the country and the urgent need for the Government to step up support for those affected.
“For too long, Covid patients have felt like the forgotten victims of this pandemic.
“The Government must end the current postcode lottery of rehabilitation services and ensure all those who need long-term treatment can access it.
“We also need a compensation scheme for key workers with long Covid, who have worked tirelessly on the frontline against the pandemic and are now paying a heavy price.
“The Government must recognise long Covid as an occupational disease and provide formal guidance to employers, to ensure that workers suffering symptoms are treated fairly and given proper support.”
A spokesperson for the NHS said: “We are communicating with GPs about the support available to the increasing number of patients experiencing ongoing coronavirus symptoms through our network of clinics across England, which bring together specialists to provide comprehensive assessments for people experiencing ongoing health issues as a result of coronavirus, and more clinics are set to open over the coming months.”
Jude Diggins, interim director of nursing, policy and public affairs at the Royal College of Nursing, said long Covid “needs to be recognised as an occupational disease, with more specialist clinics to meet increasing demand” to “help nursing staff and patients alike get the support they need”.
In February, the the World Health Organisation’s Europe director told a briefing that the burden of long Covid “is real and it is significant”.
Dr Hans Kluge said that as the pandemic had evolved, professionals and patients “have mapped a path in the dark” and stories of people with ongoing “debilitating symptoms” have emerged.
“Regrettably, some were met with disbelief, or lack of understanding,” he said, adding that disability following coronavirus infection can linger for months “with severe social, economic, health and occupational consequences”.
He added: “We need to listen and we need to understand. The sufferers of post-Covid conditions need to be heard if we are to understand the long-term consequences and recovery from Covid-19.”