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More than a third of working-age people in the UK now suffer from a long-term illness, with new figures showing a dramatic rise since the pandemic began. Post-Covid conditions, including long Covid, breathing difficulties and mental-health problems, are among the causes, according to disability charities and health campaigners.

Year Observe analysis of the Office for National Statistics’ (ONS) labor market status of disabled people figures shows that nearly 14.2 million people in the UK aged 16 to 64 said they had a health condition lasting for at least 12 months in 2021 – a rise of 1.2 million during the two years of the pandemic.

Levels of long-term ill-health had been rising more slowly before the emergence of Covid, at an annual average of about 275,000 cases a year between 2014 and 2018, but the rapid increase over the last two years highlights the health problems facing the UK , says the disability charity Scope.

About 800,000 more people suffered from mental-health problems in 2020-21 than did so in 2018-19, Scope said, and the number of people with chest and breathing problems had grown by about 570,000 over the same period.

James Taylor, Scope’s director of strategy, said: “These figures show the ongoing shock waves of the past two years continue to affect lives today. We’re concerned things will continue to get worse as time goes on.

“These figures could mean more people living with the extra costs that come with disability. As the cost of living crisis continues to bite, we know that disabled people are twice as likely to live in a cold house and three times as likely to not have been able to afford food. “The government needs to get a grip on the cost of living crisis, and target financial support directly at disabled people.”

Susannah Thompson before she got Covid.
Susannah Thompson before she got Covid: ‘I’ve always been active – I was a cold-water sea swimmer.’

Long Covid is another factor. The latest ONS long Covid report estimates that 1.5 million have had Covid symptoms for more than four weeks, and 685,000 people had symptoms that had lasted more than a year.

Further analysis by Long Covid Kids shows that people with pre-existing conditions are more likely to suffer long Covid than those without. Those whose activity is limited are, on average, more than three times as likely to suffer long Covid as those with no pre-existing conditions.

Dr Susannah Thompson was infected in April 2020 while working as a GP in her local hospital’s urgent care center in north-west England. She made a “slow, gradual recovery” over the next months and was involved in setting up the GP-led vaccination program until she had a “massive relapse” in January 2021.

“I ended up in hospital, rushed into resus [resuscitation],” she said. “I struggled to even hold a pen to write my name.” She has had constant leg pain, chilblains, brain fog – and even sitting up can send her heart racing to 140 beats per minute. “Since then I haven’t been able to see a patient,” she said. “I’ve always been active – I was a cold-water sea swimmer. I went from being able to throw myself in the sea twice a week to struggling to get in and out of a bath.”

She now uses an electric wheelchair to take her children to school and is on sick leave from her roles as GP and medical director.

“It feels like we’re ignoring long Covid,” Thompson said. “People in the middle of their lives are getting robbed of their livelihoods, at risk of losing their homes. I can’t fathom why we don’t try to prevent it. But we’re not.”

Ondine Sherwood, co-founder of Long Covid SoS, said: “We don’t yet have data on how many infected during the huge Omicron wave will go on to experience prolonged symptoms, so [numbers] will almost certainly grow. Many, if not most of those with long Covid, are of working age and were previously fit and healthy – there is surely going to be a major effect on the workforce.”

She pointed to a study published in Nature last month, which shows that even a mild infection can increase the risk of heart disease for a year after diagnosis. “Given the huge numbers affected, both in the UK and worldwide, there is a real danger that the ‘average’ level of health people enjoy could already be lower and will deteriorate further.”

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