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Do two million Brits really have long Covid?

Why has long Covid received more attention in the press than lockdown harms? Credit: Getty

May 10, 2024 - 10:00am

New research from the Office for National Statistics suggests that just over 3% of people in England and Scotland have self-reported Covid-19 symptoms more than four weeks after a suspected infection. That’s not far off two million people.

It has been suggested this week that such data demonstrate the significant impact that “long Covid” is placing on the economy, both in terms of exacerbating pressure on health services and hitting productivity through high rates of sickness-related absence from work.

Digging into the ONS figures suggests a slightly less alarming picture. For a start, 25% of those reporting long-term symptoms say that it didn’t reduce “at all” their ability to carry out day-to-day activities. Less than 1% of the working-age population report that they have post-Covid symptoms which affect day-to-day activities “a lot”.

Perhaps more importantly, however, these are self-reported symptoms and the ONS does not attempt to test whether Covid-19 is actually a causal factor. As I have previously written, research that compares patients infected with Covid with a control group of uninfected people suggests that many symptoms are equally common in both groups. In other words, much of the self-reported “long Covid” is probably not due to Covid at all.

Of course, Covid may well be a contributing factor in long-term health problems experienced by some patients, but it is important not to overstate the issue and thereby cause unnecessary worry and pressure to respond with unwarranted policy interventions.

A week after the ONS study on post-Covid symptoms was published, another coronavirus-related paper ran in the American Journal of Public Health. For some reason, this paper attracted very little press attention, but its findings are arguably far more significant than those from the ONS.

The researchers, from Syracuse University, examined the impact of Covid restrictions such as stay-at-home orders and business closures on drug deaths using US county-level data. They concluded that lockdowns had “the unintended consequence of increasing drug overdose deaths”.  They attribute this finding to the impact of lockdowns on isolation and mental wellbeing, combined with restricted access to treatment and harm-reduction services.

The effects are statistically significant. For example, the researchers estimate that had all states imposed low-level restrictions similar to those in North Dakota, the US would have suffered 9,300 fewer drug deaths in 2020 alone. Economic support measures are associated with fewer drug deaths, but even the highest level of economic support was not enough to outweigh the negative impacts of lockdown policies on drug deaths.

We know from previous peer-reviewed evidence that lockdowns did not reduce, and may well have increased, overall mortality. We already know that lockdowns had very limited, if any, impact on Covid mortality. This new evidence helps explain one mechanism for how lockdowns increased non-Covid deaths.

The research on drug deaths is part of the growing evidence base showing how the policy response to Covid-19 created devastating consequences for health, wellbeing and the economy, far in excess of any plausible benefits.

It is right that those who are suffering longer-term consequences from a Covid infection receive appropriate care. But how much more important is it that governments across the world learn the lessons of their disastrous policies during Covid? Our priority must be to ensure that unethical and unnecessary lockdowns, business closures and vaccine mandates are never repeated in the event of a future pandemic.


David Paton is a Professor of Industrial Economics at Nottingham University Business School.

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Stephen Walsh
Stephen Walsh
12 days ago

If the State and media make it their business to terrify the population about a virus, then some people will be terrified.

Kasandra H
Kasandra H
12 days ago
Reply to  Stephen Walsh

Don’t think it’s about a virus. It is the historical mindset of separation from others and separating people into pure groups and unpure groups using whatever metrics. X

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
12 days ago
Reply to  Stephen Walsh

I have one question I ask to get the measure of a new contact/acquaintance, did you take the vaccine?

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
12 days ago

What exactly does this tell you about a person?

Chris Milburn
Chris Milburn
9 days ago

It’s the wrong question. The right one is “do you think it was OK for people to be forced to take the vaccine”. Both good and bad people took it. Bad people wanted to force others.

Kasandra H
Kasandra H
12 days ago

Hmm technically, air flows incredibly fast all around. Being locked down does not prevent one from getting sick. Too much weight is given to the social distancing thing. Even if Prof Paton’s views are correct, whether rational views, protection of basic freedom and sovereignty translate into policies remain to be seen. X

David L
David L
12 days ago

Decades of pandering to hypochondriacs brought us to this.

Vesselina Zaitzeva
Vesselina Zaitzeva
10 days ago
Reply to  David L

No, these are real health conditions called “postviral fatigue” and “chronic fatigue syndrome”.
I have already written on this in more detail in another comment here.
If we were to follow your logic, we would need to call “hypochondriacs” all people with depression, tuberculosis or whatever other disease.
Btw, a typical profile of people who suffer from chronic fatigue is that of hard-working, successful, highly responsible people and/or carers. One of the theories about CFS is that, being overworked and continuing to push through, they undermine their immune system and hence a viral infection/a traumatic event or a similar occurrence causes the condition.

Mark Phillips
Mark Phillips
10 days ago

Yuppie Flu, as was.

Vesselina Zaitzeva
Vesselina Zaitzeva
9 days ago
Reply to  Mark Phillips

Yes, exactly. That was the informal name when doctors started paying attention to this phenomenon in mid-1980s.
A friend was unlucky to have it then, when it was an unfamiliar condition, and even his father, a medical doctor, disregarded his condition, saying that the “yuppy flu” was not a real disease. Thank goodness, being young enough, the friend in question recovered in a couple of years (most probably that was mononucleosis, typical of younger people).

TERRY JESSOP
TERRY JESSOP
5 days ago

Mononucleosis (aka Epstein Barr virus aka glandular fever) can be a serious disease. This disease frequently causes Lymphoma, a type of blood cancer [See: Grywalska and Rolinski: Seminars in Oncology, April 2015; suspected epidemiological pathogenetic relationship to subsequent lymphoma] 

Chris Milburn
Chris Milburn
9 days ago

I’m a doc, and I disagree quite strongly. For every patient with a real physical illness who has strange symptoms that can’t be diagnosed, there are 50 “me toos” who are very “somatically attentive” and desperately, desperately want to be sick.
The hypochondriac’s epitaph: “I told you I was sick!”

Vesselina Zaitzeva
Vesselina Zaitzeva
9 days ago
Reply to  Chris Milburn

Frankly, I can’t understand your objection to my post. It seems you are replying to something that is not there.
The fact that there are “me toos “ out there does not negate the fact that there are people who are really ill.
Besides, there have been people dismissed by doctors as “hypochondriacs” who later died because their disease was not diagnosed in good time. This is also a fact.

Fred D. Fulton
Fred D. Fulton
9 days ago
Reply to  David L

Hypochondriacs take more sick days than normal people.

Andew 0
Andew 0
12 days ago

No, they could as well have vaccine side effects. Didn’t most Brits have both vaccines and covid?

Vesselina Zaitzeva
Vesselina Zaitzeva
10 days ago
Reply to  Andew 0

Both COVID and vaccines could cause it.

j watson
j watson
12 days ago

Two key points in response.
Firstly how does the Article headline tally with the following Author statement ‘…important not to overstate the issue and thereby cause unnecessary worry’. Of course the Headline has a ?, but that’d be lost on most and OMG reaction predominant. Appreciate Author didn’t compose Headline, but Unherd knew what it was doing.
Secondly, you click on the link about ‘growing evidence base’ and there’s one paper and even that states more research needed. What’s irrefutably clear is Lockdowns certainly had negative outcomes – I mean ‘no sh*t Sherlock’. The question is whether the alternative of the virus spreading faster and much more easily would have caused outcomes even worse. We can’t easily know the counter factual because it didn’t happen. Referencing what happened to mortality rates still doesn’t tell us what would have happened.
Lots to learn for sure. Just a bit less sloppiness in conclusions all round would help.

Steven Carr
Steven Carr
12 days ago
Reply to  j watson

‘We can’t easily know the counter factual because it didn’t happen’
Did the counter-factual happen in Sweden and in some American states?
And in Belarus? BMJ headline ‘Covid-19: How does Belarus have one of the lowest death rates in Europe?’

j watson
j watson
11 days ago
Reply to  Steven Carr

No it didn’t. Fundamental differences in population density. But also you may be assuming the decision to not legislate for a Lockdown didn’t still have the population acting as if it was a Lockdown. In Sweden they must definitely did, albeit without the necessity for some draconian Policing.

Keith Dudleston
Keith Dudleston
11 days ago
Reply to  j watson

The point is that states that avoided compulsory “Lockdowns” and school closures did not have the high mortality rates predicted by modellers at the pandemic’s start and avoided the serious negative impacts of this policy on children and vulnerable adults.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
7 days ago
Reply to  j watson

I don’t agree with you here at all. Some American states had lower population densities than Sweden, more severe lockdowns and worse outcomes. In any case the Swedish overall population density influence by the far north and Lapland etc, doesn’t have much to do with. The people “at risk” were in Stockholm, Gothenburg, Malmo etc.

Meta analyses show convincingly that lockdowns did not reduce overall mortality.

Vesselina Zaitzeva
Vesselina Zaitzeva
10 days ago
Reply to  Steven Carr

Agreed. Sweden and some states in the USA are good examples, esp. comparison between Florida and California, both with similar climate.
As for Belarus, I would take every piece of information coming from that country with a very big pinch of salt. (Think North Korea and whether you would trust data coming from there.)

Simon Templar
Simon Templar
12 days ago
Reply to  j watson

“The question is whether the alternative of the virus spreading faster and much more easily would have caused outcomes even worse. We can’t easily know…”
Not true. Maybe we couldn’t have known in early 2020, but by 2021 we certainly knew that the risk from COVID to under-40s was negligible without comorbidities and entirely negligible in under-18s.
The science of natural immunity vs vaccination immunity was known and the superiority of natural immunity vehemently suppressed throughout government-controlled media, so as not to inhibit the universal take-up of the vaccine (for which the taxpayer was on the hook for tens of billions to Big Pharma) and which was the end goal all along, to addict the world population to an ever-evolving health cure.
Yes, they knew and they sacrificed a world-wide generation of children and young people on a vast medical and political experiment. That’s why the young are so depressed. We failed them.

Mark Cornish
Mark Cornish
12 days ago
Reply to  Simon Templar

The second that the Tory Government didn’t make the response to COVID an all party one spelled disaster for the country. The response became a political football to be kicked around. The country should have gone about it’s business as normal and protected the vulnerable as far as was possible. There’s no such thing as zero deaths with any outbreak of respiratory illness, such as influenza, but the government wasn’t brave enough to be honest about this. It will be interesting to see what the three year figures are for viral deaths amongst the elderly and immunosuppressed. I wouldn’t be surprised if it is the same as pre-covid years.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
7 days ago
Reply to  Mark Cornish

I think you can blame the Conservative government for many things but to particularly blame them – they contained the only significant numbers of politicians, albeit a minority – who questioned the lockdowns, is off the mark. Boris Johnson personally, for all his failings, made a big difference on our ability to go out in England for exercise. This was certainly not the case in much of Europe, where people were imprisoned effectively in small apartments, whatever the temperature, needing state documentation to leave to go to the shops.

There was absolutely nobody in the Labour Party, the laughably named Liberal Democrats, the SNP or the Greens who did anything other than back up the consensus, and indeed demand more draconian measures. Of course the consensus itself was formed almost overnight and represented a rapid reverse on the previous view on how we should treat pandemics. A big topic in itself….

j watson
j watson
11 days ago
Reply to  Simon Templar

Certainly we should have been much better prepared by time of LD2 and had less need for elements of what it then entailed. But your memory is a bit warped too. Risk to the individual does not cover the risk they can transmit. The question then is how easy it would be to protect the more ‘at risk’ population until vaccine rolled out? Far less easy than the GBD supporters believe or have ever been able to describe in practical terms.
Your other conspiratorial twaddle doesn’t deserve an answer.
The young are depressed, if indeed such a generalisation can be made, by many other things entirely in our gift to resolve – such as better control of social media and smart technology, better job prospects, better housing etc. You/we can’t correct decisions made in the Pandemic now but we can tackle these. Up for it or just a rant about the past?

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
7 days ago
Reply to  j watson

Lockdowns did not reduce mortality! I don’t know why you don’t see this point. In Britain data from South Africa clearly showed that the third wave that morbidity and mortality rates were very low and yet the government panicked (under pressure from the pro lockdown zealots) to impose a further national lockdown for months, albeit less severe than many of those seen n Europe.

Given the such egregious errors were made, we can’t just dismiss this as something that happened in the past is is avoidance. It is still rather a mystery why the West reversed its pandemic preparedness programmes almost overnight, quite possibly to copy China.

El Uro
El Uro
10 days ago
Reply to  Simon Templar

Yes, they knew and they sacrificed a world-wide generation of children and young people on a vast medical and political experiment. – It’s the first time in the human history people decided to neglect children for the sake of old people

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
12 days ago
Reply to  j watson

The problem is they aren’t even asking the question. Is there a govt anywhere in the world seriously investigating the pros and cons of lockdowns? Which begs the question; why are govts not seriously investigating lockdowns?

j watson
j watson
11 days ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

As regards the UK, I think we are as part of the Public Enquiry but it’s taking too long because the Party in power had a vested interest in delaying. I also think that if it happened again some policy responses would instinctively be different – on assumption nature of the virus similar. I also think we have time now to prepare certain key infrastructure so we could better weather a surge – ITU capacity being an obvious although v little indication the current UK Govt has grasped that lesson adequately.

jane baker
jane baker
10 days ago
Reply to  j watson

But the whole point of a lockdown is for it to be a horrible,stressing,confusing and unpleasant experience. To ameliorate it in any way defeats the object.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
7 days ago
Reply to  j watson

Unfortunately the British public inquiry is proving to be an absolute farce “who said which rude thing to whom”. There is no interest whatsoever in comparisons with for example countries like Sweden, or even some of the red states in the US.

I’m not a conspiracy theorist but this does really seem to be a case of “we need to control this narrative; we cannot possibly admit in any circumstance that terrible errors were made and the lockdowns in particular were pointless, counterproductive and extremely costly”. Those costs we of course are still paying, in economic social and medical terms.

jane baker
jane baker
10 days ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

Because they want,and intend to do it again so they can’t countenance any report stating it’s indubitably bad that could get cited back at them.

Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
12 days ago

I suspect “Long Covid” is injury delivered by the mRNA shots.

Arthur G
Arthur G
12 days ago

That’s significantly less likely than it simply being the lingering symptoms common with respiratory illness.

Vesselina Zaitzeva
Vesselina Zaitzeva
10 days ago

Yes, I know from doctors that in some people postviral fatigue and chronic fatigue syndrome were caused by these injections.
Still, there are people who developed it because of COVID. Actually, any viral infection can cause either of these conditions (or both). Haven’t we all feel extremely weak, sometimes for quite a long time, afer having a flu or another respiratory virus? That’s exactly postviral fatigue.
As I have commented a bit earlier, these well-known conditions wre just rebranded as “Long Covid”, without it being anything new and previously unknown to the medical community and millions of sufferers.

Martin Smith
Martin Smith
12 days ago

I’m a lazy goodfornothing who hasn’t had covid but I have all the symptoms of ‘the long version of the disease’. What a conundrum.

Ted Monroe
Ted Monroe
11 days ago
Reply to  Martin Smith

Many people don’t think it’s real until they get it. Next time keep your boring scepticism to yourself.

Vesselina Zaitzeva
Vesselina Zaitzeva
10 days ago
Reply to  Martin Smith

I suppose you are being sarcastic, but if you really feel like this, you migh want to check your health in case you have this condition which is caused not only by COVID.
Btw, I would recommend that you do not postpone the check, as ME/CFS/fibromyalgia might lead to serious disability if neglected.

Arthur G
Arthur G
12 days ago

No. Studies have shown that COVID 19 has fewer long term effects than most other respiratory diseases. It is, however, common for people to have symptoms from a respiratory disease that last for months. I’ve had bronchitis which was still causing occasionally coughing fits three months later.

Mark Cornish
Mark Cornish
12 days ago

So called ‘long covid’ is simply ‘Post Viral Syndrome’ which is a known condition following an array of viral infections. The special labelling in relation to COVID does nothing to alleviate the hysteria around a virus which had a very low mortality rate amongst the young, fit and healthy.

Ted Monroe
Ted Monroe
11 days ago
Reply to  Mark Cornish

Whatever you think of Lockdowns, “simply ‘Post Viral Syndrome'” is not a fair way to describe post-viral conditions, which can range from, in the case of Long Covid, loss of taste and smell – not particularly significant – to being bedbound for months, even years. It’s no joke. I was previously an extremely fit and healthy thirty-year-old and, for the last two years, I’ve been mostly housebound. There are so many people who are in a similar position to me; not 2 million, for sure, but 10s if not 100s of thousands in the UK. These are not shirkers, they are teachers, lawyers, financiers, athletes – the more stress the immune system is under, the more likely you are to develop the condition. Fatigue is by far the most common, and problematic symptom for most. Imagine a terrible hangover having had absolutely no sleep – that’s the reality most days. There are differences between post-viral conditions, so it’s not as simple as bracketing them all together.

El Uro
El Uro
11 days ago
Reply to  Ted Monroe

I do not believe you

Ted Monroe
Ted Monroe
11 days ago
Reply to  El Uro

Well, you sound like you are just full of the milk of human kindness, El Uro.

El Uro
El Uro
10 days ago
Reply to  Ted Monroe

Let me repeat – I do not believe you.
I hope that your condition is most likely the result of psychological, rather than physiological problems. I understand that this does not make it any easier for you. Powerful stress that requires physical effort, a change of environment can help you much faster than online complaints here.
Let me tell you a real episode from my life. At the age of 28, I, being depressed, suddenly began to feel sick, the further I went, the more so. My stomach could not tolerate any food other than fermented milk products. I had severe insomnia. I could not engage in mental activity. I remember how in the summer I woke up at night, shivering from the cold and could not warm myself until I got dressed and covered myself with a warm winter blanket. This happened a few days before a cycling backpacking trip that my friends and I were about to go on. The distance is about a thousand miles. I remember how, in my state at that time, I quite seriously reasoned, “Well, if you die, let it be while traveling.” I’m not exaggerating, physically I felt exactly like that. In the morning, on the day of departure, I took a local train, and then went from one railway station to another. My friends were already waiting for me in the train compartment with a bottle of vodka and a snack on the table. The most amazing thing is that I, who the day before could fall into bed from a drop of alcohol, suddenly felt internally that nothing would happen. And so it turned out. We traveled these thousand miles in 12 days, we drank vodka, wine, ate not very healthy food, but I returned as a completely healthful person.
This is an absolutely true story, I did not embellish anything, rather the opposite, and I have no explanation for what happened to me.

Vesselina Zaitzeva
Vesselina Zaitzeva
10 days ago
Reply to  El Uro

You are wrong, sorry. Both post-viral fatigue (up to 6 months after an infection) and chronic fatigue syndrome/myalgic encephalomyelitis/fibromyalgia are real conditions recognised even by health insurance companies.
There’s another matter that they were rebranded as “Long Covid” for propaganda purposes, but still, the condition is real and in many cases really serious, even disabling.

El Uro
El Uro
10 days ago

I’m not wrong, I’m right. Stress is the best medicine, it’s a well-known phenomenon.
It’s not my fault that you, as a woman, panic at any reason and believe in any nonsense.
My wife, my mother, my grandmother immediately recovered if their children began to get sick. If you are wired differently, I will not sympathize with you.

Vesselina Zaitzeva
Vesselina Zaitzeva
10 days ago
Reply to  El Uro

That was truly rude. And untrue. Now do cancer and tuberculosis stating the same, to prove your point and to feel right. Ah yes, and to show your competence and capacity for genuine compassion.

El Uro
El Uro
10 days ago

Primitive Straw man argument. It’s more than enough for me to continue to argue with hysterical woman (That was truly rude, a-a-a… 🙂 )

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
7 days ago
Reply to  El Uro

Anecdotes are not data and yours is no more convincing or otherwise than the the one you chose not to believe.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
7 days ago
Reply to  El Uro

I do not believe you.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
10 days ago
Reply to  Ted Monroe

What amazes me about long Covid is, prior to March 2020 when the proper scaremongering narrative kicked off & continued to for the next 3 years, not once prior to March 2020 did I ever hear anyone say that the had Long Flu.

Nor prior to that had I ever heard the word Asymptomatic in that you can have something but not know it, but still pass it on to someone.

To me that’s like saying to someone with absolutely no money “don’t spend it all at once” how can they spend it when they don’t have it?
So how can you spread something that you don’t have?

jane baker
jane baker
10 days ago
Reply to  Ted Monroe

That sounds like ME then. I mean M.E the fatigue condition,not Me,lol,the person.

Studio Largo
Studio Largo
11 days ago

It’s not that COVID won’t let go of these people, more like they won’t let go of it.

Keith Dudleston
Keith Dudleston
11 days ago

Where did the concept of “Long COVID” originate? In medical textbooks or journal articles? At medical conferences? I’m thinking of Facebook, maybe TicTok, or ‘X.’ I suspect it is an idea dreamed up by “Social Influences”. Post-viral syndrome has been a “thing” for many years and can be surprisingly severe and enduring and very frustrating for sufferers and their families. Infectious Mononucleosis is notorious for causing long-lasting fatigue, fever and body aches, but it has never led to healthy people being quarantined for months and months.

Rachel Taylor
Rachel Taylor
11 days ago

No need for concern. We have a very expensive and protracted public Inquiry that is devoted to not answering this question. In a few years’ time we will have enough whitewash to paint the entire public health industry three times over.

jane baker
jane baker
10 days ago

But it will be. The next lockdown will be more severe because it’s not about contagion,it’s about control.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
7 days ago
Reply to  jane baker

I don’t think we’ll have another lockdown. It is far too expensive for one thing. And if people are actually not going to be paid then there will be a revolution. It was fascinating to see the most strict countries such as Austria completely dropping all requirements for travel (without fanfare!), including lateral test flow results or vaccination status, when by then these were administratively well entrenched and easy to supervise at airports.

What would be the purpose of “controlling” the population by insisting they stay at home? This isn’t ultimately in the interest of any government even in China, gave up on trying to repress covid even though they’re population was much less vaccinated. There are better and more subtle ways of achieving that – dominating and controlling “the narrative”, weather on covid restrictions or Net Zero, being the best.

Gerry Quinn
Gerry Quinn
9 days ago

Are people even coming down with Covid any more?

Jürg Gassmann
Jürg Gassmann
9 days ago

Is there a cross-correlation with individuals who had one or more of the shots?
Technically, if someone had a full course of shots, it can’t be “Long CoViD” because the shots are known to prevent CoViD.

Mike MacCormack
Mike MacCormack
4 days ago

I’m a bit wary of statistical ‘evidence’, many scientists are lousy statisticians, and armchair experts are worse still, they need to polish up their Bayesian algebra. To get a pukka analysis you would need to sample many large groups with many divergent experiences, not just those with or without Covid and those with or without comparable lockdowns. The suggestion above is that lockdown itself can skew the death rate upwards in some places, distorting the result. Swedish experience also seems to suggest that ‘no lockdown’ might have made some Swedes more careful about social contacts. Vaccine hysteria and conspiracy theory uptake rates modify behaviour. Etc., etc. Broad assertions that lockdowns didn’t work, or masks didn’t work except in medical environments are now rife and just as daft as any alternative medical claim, i.e. really daft.