Nearly a third of people who were discharged from hospitals in England after being treated for Covid-19 were readmitted within five months – and almost one in eight died, a study suggests.

The research, which is still to be peer-reviewed, also found a higher risk of problems developing in a range of organs after hospital discharge in those younger than 70 and ethnic minority individuals.

“There’s been so much talk about all these people dying from Covid … but death is not the only outcome that matters,” said Dr Charlotte Summers, a lecturer in intensive care medicine at the University of Cambridge who was not involved in this study.

“The idea that we have that level of increased risk in people – particularly young people – it means we’ve got a lot of work to do.”

There is no consensus on the scale and impact of “long Covid”, but scientists have described emerging evidence as concerning. According to recent figures provided by the Office for National Statistics (ONS), a fifth of people in England still have coronavirus symptoms five weeks after being infected, half of whom continue to experience problems for at least 12 weeks.

Thanks to a better understanding of the disease and new therapies, Covid-19 hospital death rates have fallen dramatically, said study researcher Kamlesh Khunti, a professor from the University of Leicester who sits on Sage and is also a member of the Independent Sage group of experts.

The findings are based on data from the ONS and general practitioners in England. A total of 47,780 individuals who had a hospital episode between 1 January 2020 and 31 August 2020 with a primary diagnosis of Covid-19 were compared with a control group who did not have Covid-19.

Of the 47,780, 29.4% were readmitted within 140 days of discharge and 12.3% died. The rate of readmission was 3.5 times greater, and the death rate seven times higher, than those in the control group, the researchers found.

The risk of post-discharge illness – such as respiratory conditions, diabetes and problems with the heart, liver and kidneys – in Covid-19 patients was higher compared with the control group. That risk was also greater in younger and ethnic minority individuals compared with those aged 70 and above and white people.

“This matters. Long Covid at this level of morbidity and new disease is absolutely as important as the number of people dying,” said Summers.

Respiratory disease was diagnosed in 14,140 of the Covid-19 cases (29.6%) following discharge, with 6,085 of the diagnoses in patients that had no history of respiratory conditions.

If this percentage of people who came to hospital end up with chronic respiratory disease, she said, “the NHS has just got an enormous burden that it didn’t have before”.

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