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Fact/Fiction: Do 74,000 kids have ‘long Covid’?

Old news, truthfully retold. It's been claimed that thousands of children are suffering the physical effects of Covid-19, but there could be other reasons Britain's children are feeling rotten. The Big Issue looks into it.
Do 74,000 children have ‘long Covid’? Illustration: Miles Cole

Every week in Fact/Fiction, The Big Issue examines spurious claims, questionable studies or debatable stories from the press to determine whether they are fact or fiction. This week we find out if kids really are suffering from the effects of ‘long Covid’.

How it was told

Children have been among the worst affected during the pandemic. Between school closures, being separated from friends and nosediving mental health, they’ve been dubbed Generation Covid for good reason.

But, if reports are true, a huge number are suffering physical symptoms of the virus too.

Nearly 75,000 UK kids are experiencing ‘long Covid’, recent headlines claimed, the name given to the coronavirus symptoms which can linger for weeks or months after an infection. Given how little we know for sure about the novel illness, everything from tiredness to tinnitus to pins and needles could signal a Covid-19 infection’s long-term impact on the body.

Metro covered the story, based on Office for National Statistics data, with the headline: “‘More than 74,000 children’ suffering from long Covid months after infection”.

And The Sun laid it on thick, alerting readers with “HEALTH HORROR: Long Covid kids left in crippling long-term pain as chronic condition ‘strikes down 74,000 Brit youngsters’”.

Meanwhile the Daily Mirror’s story, which originally cited the claim that 74,000 children across the UK were among those suffering the little-understood long Covid, was amended to remove the figure.

But why?

Facts. Checked

As the people behind the research said, the figure must be taken with a pinch of salt.

The world’s scientists have had less than two years to get to grips with Covid-19 and all it entails. There are so many unknowns that, despite being recorded anecdotally around the world, there is no set definition for long Covid, never mind a definitive test for it. Experts don’t even agree on how long after testing positive for the virus symptoms become long Covid rather than being the initial infection persisting.

The experimental ONS estimates were based on the UK Coronavirus Infection Survey, which gathered information from nearly 9,100 people about their Covid infections, including how many were still experiencing coronavirus symptoms five weeks after testing positive for the virus – specifically fatigue, a cough, headache, loss of taste or smell or muscle aches.  

The 74,000 figure was extrapolated from the percentage of kids who reported these symptoms (nearly 13 per cent of children aged between two and 11, and 14.5 per cent of 12-to-16-year-olds). But, while the estimates could be useful for forecasting how significant a challenge long Covid could be in the months and years ahead, we just don’t know enough about what it really is to say for certain. There was no control group to compare the figures to, so we can’t know for sure if the number of children experiencing these fairly common symptoms was even unusual.

Finally, to take the estimates at face value ignores the huge pressure children have been under for 12 months. NHS research found that one in six children likely had mental health problems in the depths of lockdown last year, which can easily manifest as physical symptoms like headaches, fatigues and even high temperatures. More time spent indoors, as has been required by lockdown restrictions, can result in muscle aches.

It sadly doesn’t come as a surprise that more children than usual could be feeling under the weather, and it’s important the country prepares to support children who are affected by long Covid. But there are simply too few certainties around these estimates – and too many difficulties facing UK kids right now – to say 74,000 children are suffering poor health as a result of a previous Covid-19 infection.