The ONS (‘Office of National Statistics) produces annual updates on period life expectancy in the UK – the so-called National Life Tables. The latest tables are based on the 2018 to 2020 period, and therefore are the first to pick up the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Given the significantly increased death rates seen in 2020, this fall in life expectancy is not unexpected. However, it is important to note that the headline figures hide a wide variety of underlying impacts at a more granular level.
Age-standardised mortality rates are calculated for vaccination status groups using the Public Health Data Asset (PHDA) dataset. The PHDA is a linked dataset combining the 2011 Census, the General Practice Extraction Service (GPES) data for pandemic planning and research, and the Hospital Episode Statistics (HES). We linked vaccination data from the National Immunisation Management Service (NIMS) to the PHDA based on NHS number, and linked data on positive coronavirus (COVID-19) Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) tests from Test and Trace to the PHDA, also based on NHS number.
The PHDA dataset contains a subset of the population and allows for analyses to be carried out that require a known living population with known characteristics. These characteristics include age-standardised mortality rates (ASMRs) by vaccination status and the use of variables such as health conditions and census characteristics.
But most people with COVID-19 are never ill enough to be hospitalized. The best way to assess the prevalence of long COVID is to follow a representative group of people who have tested positive for the virus. The UK Office of National Statistics (ONS) has done just that, by following more than 20,000 people who have tested positive since April 2020 (see ‘Uncertain endpoint’). In its most recent analyses, published on 1 April, the ONS found that 13.7% still reported symptoms after at least 12 weeks (there is no widely agreed definition of long COVID, but the ONS considers it to be COVID-19 symptoms that last more than 4 weeks).
In other words, more than one in 10 people who became infected with SARS-CoV-2 have gone on to get long COVID. If the UK prevalence is applicable elsewhere, that’s more than 16 million people worldwide.
The condition seems to be more common in women than in men. In another ONS analysis, 23% of women and 19% of men still had symptoms 5 weeks after infection. That is “striking”, says Rachael Evans, a clinician scientist at the University of Leicester, UK, and a member of the Post-Hospitalisation COVID-19 study (PHOSP-COVID). “If you’re male and get COVID, you’re more likely to go to hospital and you’re more likely to die. Yet if you survive, actually it’s females that are much more likely to get the ongoing symptoms.”