Covid-19 cases were widespread in UK much earlier than previously thought, experts say


he coronavirus outbreak across the UK may have begun much earlier than previously thought with European ski resorts believed to be an epicentre of infection, according to experts.

When the first two Covid-19 cases were confirmed in the UK on January 31 2020, it was thought at that time the risk of onward transmission was very low.

Both later tested positive for coronavirus.

At that time, the UK’s chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty said the UK had been preparing for cases of novel coronavirus and “we have robust infection control measures in place to respond immediately”.

This timeline was moved further back after a coroner revealed in September that a UK patient had died with Covid-19 in January 30.

The death of 84-year-old Peter Attwood at a hospital in Kent was attributed to Covid-19 after coronavirus was found in his lungs, making him the first person in the UK to die of the disease.

Meanwhile, a coronavirus tracking app designed by scientists at King’s College London, also hinted at sustained community transmission of coronavirus in the UK as early as December.

This is much earlier than the first confirmed case of transmission inside the UK, which was registered on February 28 in Surrey.

Tim Spector, lead scientist on the Zoe Covid Symptom Study app and professor of genetic epidemiology at King’s College London, said that the while their research was designed to track people who were symptomatic, there were many who were reporting their symptoms retrospectively.

He said: “We were seeing large numbers of people reporting classic Covid symptoms from between Christmas and New Year, and in come cases, before that.”

Professor Spector said, although data from the Zoe app comes from biased and self-selecting sample, it suggests that there were clusters of people who had returned from ski trips in Europe over the festive period and “got sick immediately when they came back”.

He said: “There is no doubt in my mind there were real genuine cases around in December and there are anecdotes of earlier cases of people with classic Covid symptoms.

“Of course, I can’t confirm this with scientific certainty, but we do know now that many of the ski resorts were epicentres of Covid.”

While the official case count did not rise above 100 until March 6, there were many who suspect they may have had Covid-19 in early January 2020, or even December 2019.


Andy Gill died of pneumonia on February 1

/ Frazer Harrison/Getty ImagesGetty )

He died of pneumonia at St Thomas’ hospital in London on February 1 after returning from a tour in China on November 23 2019.

And while China first reported cases of coronavirus on December 31 2019, government data seen by the South China Morning Post suggests the first known case was observed on November 17.

Meanwhile, recent research from the UK’s Covid-19 Genomics UK consortium found that coronavirus was introduced to the UK more than 1,000 times during the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic – between January and June 2020.

But Dr MacDermott believes imposing restrictions earlier would have been difficult because the tools for coronavirus surveillance were limited.

She said: “I think it is easy to say a lot of things in hindsight and we have to remember what information we had at the time when those decisions were being made.

“And obviously at the time, there was really no good justification for putting in an all-out travel ban, or putting in lockdown measures, because we didn’t understand this virus to be as transmissible as it turned out to be.”

Additional reporting by PA.


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