When news emerged about the world’s first outbreak of coronavirus in the Chinese city of Wuhan, many in the UK wrongly dismissed it as a health crisis happening elsewhere and were reassured by the government’s inaction.
The reality began sinking in with what was then thought to be Britain’s first Covid-19 death on March 5, 2020: a woman in her 70s at the Royal Berkshire Hospital in Reading. Weeks later, the UK was plunged into its first coronavirus lockdown on March 23.
Since then, it’s emerged that at least five other people had died earlier that month. And more recently, data compiled from death certificates has revealed coronavirus deaths that happened in the UK on January 30, February 2 and February 22, 2020.
Peter Attwood, 84, who died on January 30 last year, is thought to have been Britain’s first fatal Covid victim. Pneumonia and heart failure were initially blamed, but a post mortem report in August confirmed he had died of coronavirus, making him the world’s first victim outside China.
Bereaved families who lost loved ones early on in the pandemic told HuffPost UK the virus was clearly on UK shores a lot earlier than originally thought.
They have criticised the government, saying it reveals how totally unprepared they were, and claim delays will have caused unnecessary deaths.
Jamie Brown, a spokesperson for the Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice group, said: “This points to the total under-estimation of the risk to people’s lives.
“There was significant ignorance, denial and arrogance that coronavirus was something happening in China and could not reach or harm us here.”
He added that, as a group of islands, the UK should have been better placed than most countries to shut down borders and prevent cases arriving from overseas.
“Our government completely ignored the problem which was growing. Its failure to take this crisis seriously right at the start is one of the earliest reasons that led to so many people dying in the UK.”
The timeline of events shows on December 31, 2019, a respiratory illness in a cluster of people in Wuhan City was reported to the World Health Organisation (WHO). On January 12, 2020, the WHO confirmed a novel coronavirus was the cause.
The first official UK coronavirus cases were believed to have been two Chinese tourists who were staying in York and treated at hospital in Newcastle on January 31.
On February 28, 2020, a British man was reported as the first UK citizen to die from coronavirus after being infected on the Diamond Princess cruise ship in Japan.
The first UK Covid-19 death was made public on March 5, 2020 – days after Boris Johnson joked about shaking hands with hospital staff in the first Downing Street coronavirus briefing on March 3.
Since then, earlier coronavirus deaths have been recorded, including Attwood, who was admitted to hospital with a mystery cough and fever on January 7 last year.
Tissue samples tested months later showed he had Covid after the coroner was dissatisfied that pneumonia had caused his death.
The Office for National Statistics told HuffPost UK delays for registering deaths on certificates happen for numerous reasons. Some will have been referred to a coroner, others will have an unknown cause of death, and some will have been homeless people.
Some believe there will have been many more UK coronavirus deaths that occurred earlier than official records show, but will be difficult to prove as there was no testing.
Andy Gill, the guitarist with band Gang of Four, toured Australia, New Zealand, Japan and China, with the final date being November 23, 2019, before heading home.
Mayer, his partner of 29 years, told HuffPost UK she recalls him sounding breathless when they spoke on the telephone just before his return.
But she says he didn’t feel badly ill and resisted going into hospital. Gill didn’t realise his oxygen levels were dropping until they became dangerously low.
He was admitted to intensive care in January 2020, but even then doctors felt his prognosis was good.
“They said he was the healthiest person in there and would be out in no time,” she said. “They identified a certain type of pneumonia which was treatable.
But instead of responding to treatment, Gill went downhill. “Doctors were trying everything and puzzled by what they were seeing.
“Then there was that terrible moment when they put Andy on a ventilator and he never recovered.”
Gill died on February 1, 2020, a month after his 64th birthday. The cause of death was recorded as pneumonia and multiple organ failure.
Mayer initially dismissed thoughts of coronavirus as Gill hadn’t been to Wuhan.
“At the time, there was a very rigid idea of how coronavirus developed,” she said. “Andy became ill, appeared to recover, then became worse. We now know this is common for people with Covid.”
As more details emerged about coronavirus, Meyer realised Gill had displayed several symptoms of the disease, including low oxygen levels, lethargy and losing his appetite.
She contacted his specialist asking if there was a possibility of it having been coronavirus and discovered they were already investigating. “They were trying to locate tissue samples to test as they couldn’t understand why Andy had become so ill.
“The specialist said, as they’d learned more about Covid-19, they began thinking there was a real possibility Andy might have been infected by it.”
Unfortunately, the right tissue samples weren’t found to test and Gill was cremated so Mayer accepts she will “never know” for certain. However, she and medical and scientific experts believe it is likely Gill had coronavirus.
She has tracked family and friends in contact with Gill at the time of his illness and discovered others got sick – including the band’s 26-year-old tour manager who was hospitalised with “respiratory distress”.
Mayer, who has co-written the book Good Grief: Embracing Life at a Time of Death, with her mother, told HuffPost UK the grim milestone of 100,000 coronavirus deaths being surpassed is “particularly painful” for those who lost loved ones not even counted in that figure.
“It is a horrific figure and the death toll in the UK has been enormous,” she said. “Andy would have been a very early coronavirus death and there will be an awful lot of people who were not recognised in the first wave of this pandemic.
“We are now confronted by the narrative of the government saying they ‘did all they could’ when they manifestly didn’t.”
Mayer says understanding when coronavirus first hit the UK is crucial for learning lessons. “It isn’t a question of blame,” she said. “But the issue of when it was first here is linked to the slowness of response.
“Knowing when the virus first emerged is an integral part of understanding its nature and ability to change and makeshift.”
Mayer added: “China was massively at fault for not notifying people about the true extent of coronavirus fast enough.
“But this was compounded by having a UK government who just didn’t take it seriously enough at first.”
Arif Niyazi, 60, who lived in Birmingham with wife Serap, died on March 30 of coronavirus after being admitted to hospital 10 days earlier.
Daughter Ozel Ekrem, 40, who lives in London with her husband and two daughters, last saw her father in person on March 8 when they all enjoyed a family barbecue.
At that point, she said, everyone was living life normally as the government messaging suggested little to worry about.
“Things were terrible in Italy but as the government didn’t seem worried enough to take action, it made the public think there was no need to be concerned,” she said.
“The government was saying at that stage it was only the elderly who were affected so even when my dad became ill and went to hospital, we thought: ‘He’s only 60, he’ll be OK.’”
Ekrem says it was actually her mother who became ill first around the middle of March 2020 and went to A&E with breathing difficulties concerned about her angina. “They told my mum she would either get better or worse and sent her home. They should have tested her for coronavirus.”
Then Niyazi, a British Cypriot who was a restaurateur before working in catering supplies, began struggling with his breathing too, and was admitted to hospital.
He was not sent to intensive care or put on a ventilator and Ekrem says the family spoke to him daily via video messaging and never anticipated his death.
“I spoke to him through FaceTime that morning and he gave me a thumbs up. I feel robbed of my kind and generous dad and never got the chance to say goodbye.”
Ekrem, who works in public relations, was still attending large scale events around the time she last saw her dad. His grandchildren were still at school and her mum was still going to work as a teacher.
“I feel guilty now – what if I took coronavirus to my dad from London when I last saw him?” she said. “Or what if he got it from his grandchildren going to school? Or what if my mum had it when she was ill and the hospital sent her home without testing and she infected her husband?
“We understand the seriousness of coronavirus now, but when my dad became ill, we hadn’t even gone into lockdown.
“The information in the beginning was very poor and precautions were zero.”
Serap, who was married to Niyazi for 40 years with three children and six grandchildren, told HuffPost UK that if it had been known that coronavirus was around earlier in the UK, action could have been taken to prevent such a huge death toll.
“I’m absolutely devastated and still cannot believe he has gone,” she said. “We couldn’t even bury him properly as a Muslim as he could not have the formal prayers in the mosque.
“A Transit van took him to the funeral as funeral cars wouldn’t take Covid patients, There were only a few of us and we were only allowed 15 minutes. We couldn’t even throw soil as the digger did that.
“He wasn’t even given the dignity of a proper burial or prayers.”
She added: “None of the 100,000-plus people who have died deserved this. We should have shut down everything earlier.”
Sarah Nicola, 46, of Cumbria, lost her mum Helen, 79, to coronavirus on March 25, 2020, two days after she was admitted to hospital. Doctors suspected Covid but only received the positive result after her death.
“We couldn’t believe it when they said it was coronavirus as my mum didn’t go anywhere or go out,” she said. “However, district nurses went round to dress her weeping legs from water retention. We believe she got it from a nurse who didn’t have PPE and later had symptoms and was quarantined.”
Nicola says her mum had the underlying health condition of heart failure, but this was managed with medication and she “would still be here if it wasn’t for Covid” as her illness was manageable.
She believes the government was “very much minimising the disease” in the early days and only telling people to look for certain symptoms including a dry continuous cough.
“Lockdown came too late,” she said. “If the government had relayed the seriousness of everything, we would have made sure we didn’t have any district nurses or carers coming into the home and managed ourselves.
“Coronavirus must have been around for a long time before they realised. But the government was trying to play it down.
“Finding out the situation late on will have caused so many needless deaths.”
Experts say coronavirus was widespread in the UK much earlier than initially thought with people returning from Christmas holidays abroad and skiing holidays reporting classic Covid symptoms.
A coronavirus tracking app designed by scientists at King’s College, London, has hinted at sustained community transmission of Covid-19 in the UK as early as December 2019.
Tim Spector, lead scientist on the Zoe Covid symptom study app and professor of genetic epidemiology at King’s College, London, told HuffPost UK that many people reported their symptoms retrospectively and they have seen “large numbers reporting classic Covid symptoms between Christmas and New Year and in some cases, even earlier”.
“Finding out about deaths that happened earlier teaches us lessons about how poor our surveillance in the early part of last year was,” he said.
“It was just not picked up on at all.”
Spector says one of the issues was that initially the government only recognised a few symptoms of Covid – while their app has 24 symptoms listed, including loss of smell which the government did not recognise until May.
“We have had e-mails and anecdotes from hundreds and thousands of people saying they had symptoms since December.
“There is no doubt in my mind that these people had Covid. If there had been testing then, they would have shown as positive.
“The commonest source was people going abroad for Christmas and going on skiing holidays.”
Spector told HuffPost UK that while these reports show coronavirus was around in December or even earlier, the UK didn’t notice as a country until mid-February.
“It exposes how slow we were to react. We were in denial,” he said.
“The delay in picking up coronavirus cases changed our attitude to the first lockdown. People thought the numbers weren’t that high and that we had more time.”
Spector added: “We are catching up and need to learn from our past mistakes and be better at planning.
“There are many people who became ill and even died of coronavirus early on who were not recognised. It was definitely underestimated.”