Why is the government’s list of coronavirus symptoms still woefully inaccurate?

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Back in April 2020, I wrote an article criticising the government and the woefully incomplete list of coronavirus (Covid-19) symptoms it was sharing with the public. I compared our government’s advice to that of other countries.  And what I found was that the NHS’s list of coronavirus symptoms was one of the most incomplete in the world.

At the time, my housemate and I were certain that we had coronavirus, although we had none of the listed symptoms. “It feels like I’ve smoked a whole packet of cigarettes,” my friend had moaned at the time. A few days later, his condition deteriorated. “It feels like someone is sitting on my chest,” he wheezed.

Fast-forward to July 2021, and I am recovering from coronavirus again. This time I was able to get an official diagnosis. Like the majority of people in the UK, it’s very likely that I was infected by the Delta variant: a strain of coronavirus that feels quite different to the virus we knew in early 2020.

The variant has changed…

The Delta variant is currently sweeping the UK and spreads much more easily than its predecessors. I had only been given one dose of the vaccine when I caught the virus. Yet friends I had been socialising with found themselves in bed even after receiving two vaccinations. I was shocked that Delta could spread so rapidly among people who had been double-vaccinated.

On top of this, the new Lambda variant – which is proving deadly in Peru and the rest of Latin America – has also made its way into the UK. Its transmission rate is thought to be higher than all other variants. And scientists fear that a new mutation of the strain is resistant to vaccines.

…so why hasn’t the NHS’s advice changed?

With so much knowledge of how the virus has changed over the course of a year and a half, it’s disturbing that the government hasn’t bothered to update the advice they’re giving to the public. This is particularly concerning given that coronavirus cases are rising steeply again.

The NHS still only lists three symptoms to watch out for:

Read on...

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  • a high temperature – this means you feel hot to touch on your chest or back (you do not need to measure your temperature)
  • a new, continuous cough – this means coughing a lot for more than an hour, or 3 or more coughing episodes in 24 hours (if you usually have a cough, it may be worse than usual)
  • a loss or change to your sense of smell or taste – this means you’ve noticed you cannot smell or taste anything, or things smell or taste different to normal

Yet the ZOE app – the largest ongoing study of coronavirus in the world – lists different symptoms to watch out for. If you’re not vaccinated, ZOE lists the most common symptoms as being:

  1. Headache
  2. Sore Throat
  3. Runny Nose
  4. Fever
  5. Persistent cough

ZOE says:

Loss of smell comes in at number 9 and shortness of breath comes far down the list at number 30, indicating the symptoms as recorded previously are changing with the evolving variants of the virus.

And if you’ve already been given two vaccinations, ZOE lists the most common symptoms as:

  1. Headache
  2. Runny nose
  3. Sneezing
  4. Sore throat
  5. Other

That’s none of the symptoms listed by the NHS. ZOE says:

The previous ‘traditional’ symptoms as still outlined on the government website, such as anosmia (loss of smell), shortness of breath and fever rank way down the list, at 11, 29 and 12 respectively. A persistent cough now ranks at number 8 if you’ve had two vaccine doses, so is no longer the top indicator of having COVID.

With such dire advice still coming from the government, it’s no wonder that infection rates are shooting through the roof.

DHSC response

The Canary contacted the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) for a comment. The department said:

Since the start of the pandemic we have acknowledged COVID-19 has a much longer list of symptoms than the ones initially used in the case definition and our experts keep the list of symptoms under review.

But the DHSC didn’t address the question we asked, which was “why hasn’t the government updated its symptom list in almost a year and a half?” Instead, the DHSC told us:

Anyone experiencing the key symptoms – a high temperature, a new continuous cough, or a loss or change to sense of smell or taste – should get a PCR test as soon as possible and immediately self-isolate along with their household.

PCR tests are mainly for people who have symptoms, and a swab is sent off to a lab. The DHSC continued:

With around one in three people not showing symptoms of COVID-19, we have made regular, rapid testing available twice a week for free for everyone in England. Over 100 million LFDs have been carried out so far with over 200,000 cases identified that would not have been detected otherwise.

LFDs, or lateral flow tests, give results within 30 minutes and should be used if a person has no symptoms. Yet their effectiveness in picking up whether someone has the virus is questionable. I myself received a negative LFD result before getting a positive PCR result.

The government is still proving that it’s incompetent

Boris Johnson’s government seems content that although coronavirus rates are increasing, our death rates are still low. But the government isn’t taking into account that, even if people don’t die, the effects of long Covid can be devastating. Shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth also argued:

Letting cases rise with no action means further pressure on the NHS, more sickness, disruption to education – and risks a new variant emerging with a selection advantage.

The emergence of new variants is particularly worrying. Because the more the virus mutates, the greater the chances of a vaccine-resistant strain developing. Meanwhile, states such as Germany continue to close their borders to UK citizens, citing the country as a new area “of variants of concern”.

As the UK government proudly prepares to ease all lockdown restrictions, Germany and others will, once more, be watching closely. Johnson will continue to try to convince the public that he’s doing a wonderful job. But, as always, he’s fooling no one.

Featured image via Flickr / NIAID-RML

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  • Show Comments
    1. The government’s advice re covid sound suspiciously like the information put out by the apartheid-era South African government’s propaganda about uranium mining; it defended it’s failure to provide protective equipment or proper ven tilation to uranium miners because in its own words, “Our scientific research has proven that blacks do not get cancer”.

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