CORONAVIRUS may have been in Britain as early as October 2019 and two leading UK scientists have called for a public inquiry to pinpoint exactly when the first cluster of cases occurred, Express.co.uk can exclusively reveal.
On January 31, two Chinese nationals staying in a hotel in York, became the first confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the UK, but the earliest transmission in Britain is thought to have occurred on January 28 to a man in Surrey who had not travelled abroad recently. It was not until one month later, on February 28, that Britain would see its first official fatality – a woman in her Seventies treated at the Royal Berkshire Hospital in Reading – who, according to chief medical advisor Professor Chris Whitty, caught the virus in the UK. By March 1, there were cases reported in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, before it was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organisation (WHO) 10 days later, leading to the closure of schools, restaurants, pubs and leisure centres, before a full lockdown was introduced by the Government on March 23.
Said to have originated from Wuhan, China, in December, a recent study by researchers at University College London and the University of Reunion Island, found COVID-19 may have made the jump from its initial host to humans at some point between October 6 and December 11.
Looking at the Office of National Statistics (ONS) official death figures, Express.co.uk identified what experts have now determined to be a “spike” in fatalities in England and Wales between adults 45-85+ starting on week 45 of 2019 – November 8 – with the same figures being almost 1,000 deaths higher than the previous year and around 200-300 higher than the five-year average.
The ONS confirmed to Express.co.uk that there were 129,821 deaths registered in England between October and December 2019, 6,752 more deaths than the five-year average (2014 to 2018) for this quarter and that age-specific mortality rates significantly increased between this same timeframe for all age groups aged 75 years and over, in comparison to the year before.
Dr Jason Oke of the University of Oxford says these deaths need to be studied further to understand their implications.
He told Express.co.uk: “Im interested in looking at this excess in deaths, but it depends on what you compare to, if you look back at other data, the expectation of what happens is quite variable year-on-year.
“Life expectancy has plateaued now, but its been going up for a while, so you would expect, perhaps, fewer deaths in later years.
“I think these comparisons are tricky – its very easy to see the effects of COVID, because the jump is so large – theres no mistaking those because the magnitude is so big.
“But, smaller deviations are a bit more difficult to determine whats going on, or whether thats just an artefact.”
Dr Oke said there were no doubts over a significant rise in deaths among the elderly before Christmas, but said it was hard to put a finger on whether they could be attributed to coronavirus without further investigation.
He added: “If there were excess deaths before Christmas, I dont think everyone would necessarily think that was because of COVID, unless there is some further evidence.
“Doctors dont specify the cause of the influenza-like illness, now they write down the specific cause of being COVID, but before, no one wrote down that it was Influenza Type B on the death certificate.
“They just wrote down that the person died of what looks like the flu.”
Dr Oke acknowledged the possibility they could be attributed to an unknown virus, but called for further investigation to confirm.
He added: “It is entirely possible they could have been dying from an unknown detected undiagnosed version that looks like the flu.
“The only way you can determine whether that was the flu season or whether that was something different would go beyond this data.
“The ONS monitor excess deaths around winter and that season before there was nothing remarkable over what is expected.
“Weve been looking at these excess (deaths) overtime, and modulating deaths over time for about five years and you do see these winter spikes and drops.”
Looking at the data, Dr Oke said he would not have expected such a high rise in deaths for a mild winter.
He added: “What we noticed was, at the end of 2019 – a mild winter – the number of deaths should relate to how cold it gets.
“So if you have a mild winter, you should have fewer deaths in the elderly.
“We were just looking at whether weve been hit particularly bad by COVID, because what its done is it has taken some of those people who would have gone in a cold winter had it been there.
“So its 2019/20 versus 2018/2019, working from week 17 to week 17, what you can see is they look similar, particularly women over 85.
“If you do an accumulative number over the years, they come to roughly the same, but in women over 85, the difference is really large.
“So it looks like about 8,000 fewer deaths compared to the year before, its a large disparity, you dont normally see those often.”
Dr Oke said he would “support a public inquiry that would lead us to understand when the first case came into the UK and how far it had spread before the lockdown”.
Dr Amitava Banerjee of University College London says it is impossible to attribute these deaths to coronavirus by just looking at the data, adding that he did not experience a jump in respiratory deaths while working in hospital.
But he did say there is a need for further probing due to the possibility of COVID-19 being in the UK during this timeframe.
He added: “On whether this could be COVID, theres undoubted evidence, particularly with our lack of testing until the end of March, that its quite possible we did have cases.
“But this being an explanation for that is a long-shot, because that would suggest we had our own early pandemic, and that wasnt the case.
“I work as a clinical doctor and we werent seeing that in hospitals during winter.
“So I would say it was early March, end of February where we started to see this, but, of course, there might have been the odd case and with London – Heathrow and other airports – being such hubs, its not only likely, but probable that we had many cases that we didnt see.
“If we are seeing hundreds of deaths, per month throughout November and December, thats something we would see in hospitals.”
But, Dr Banerjee said he thought the likely cases at the end of 2019 would have come from young, healthy, working adults, which may not have transpired to the spike in deaths seen.
He added: “Were very good, as doctors, at knowing if things were getting worse, and my sense was that I don’t remember seeing more pneumonia.
“I made the shift into COVID care in late February and March, so even if we were missing care home deaths, they would have had to have started somewhere.
“However, I do think its quite possible that the virus was in the UK between October and December, we know that people were flying from China, Hong Kong, every day, sometimes several times a day.
“All it takes is one person, so some cases would have been possible, but lots of cases, its less probable, because we would have expected to see people with severe pneumonia admissions.
“But, one thing to factor into all of this is most of the people who die from COVID have been people with underlying conditions and people who are older, so this at-risk group are the people who weve been shielding and watching.”
Dr Banerjee said he thought the first cases from healthy individuals to the elderly started developing around January or February but would support a public inquiry to determine this, among all other aspects of the pandemic.
Express.co.uk also spoke to Professor Keith Neil, an expert in the epidemiology of infectious diseases at the University of Nottingham, who was interested in comparing the data to the five-year average mentioned by the ONS.
He said: “I have looked at total death rates using the five-year rolling average, they are slightly up over the last three months of the year but our population has also increased a little as has the numbers of elderly.
“It is quite possible COVID-19 arrived in the UK much earlier than thought but it did not really start to produce lots of chains of transmission.
“This probably took off with skiers returning from Italy and Austria as in Germany.
“If it goes up three-fold every week so after one month only 81 cases and 6561 (81 x 81) after two months, of this, one percent would probably have died.
“The excess deaths per week runs for much longer than COVID-19 earliest reports suggest.
“With that figure, its still high, around two or three hundred excess deaths a week, so you are correct, the rate is up.”
But, Professor Neal is not convinced this spike is evidence the outbreak started in the UK between October and December, though he did not rule out the odd case.
He said: “For purely statistical purposes, you need to see whether 2019 was a bad year, I dont think it alters your underlying finding though, the rate of deaths in 2019 was higher than 2018.
“Some of that might be because the population is larger and older, but again its higher and we cant explain it.
“Is it the COVID-19 outbreak coming earlier? I think not, and the reason for that is I dont think it arrived in October because the figures are running at the same rate each month.
“If COVID-19 was causing these deaths we would see a similar pattern that you see in the recent ONS figures where they start quite low and then the excess number of deaths goes up each week because the epidemic is spreading.
“The only way these could be due to COVID-19 is if it arrived three months earlier than the earliest known transmission – the one in Paris on December 27 – and it killed a couple hundred and went away again.”
But, Professor Neal does not think this is a likely scenario, due to his predictions that the R-rate would be around three, causing the numbers to rise week-on-week.
He added: “But if the spread was sufficient to kill 200 people, it would have needed to infect 20,000 people, which would have produced 60,000 cases the next week, on an R factor of three.
“You would expect to see the deaths tripling each week approximately if it was due to COVID-19.
“My favoured explanation would be that flu was a factor, or another respiratory virus.
“I think the most likely event was the skiers around February half-term, we know it was in Italy and France in large numbers, even before the Italians recognised it.
“If the virus was in the UK in October, the infection rate would go up three times every week, so within a month its exponential growth would be huge.”
But Professor Neal, who did not support a public inquiry, did add that this was a tough question to answer without further investigation.
This is because he believes the first few cases may have been isolated.
He continued: “The deaths tell us what was happening a month ago, we started seeing them in the middle of March, and it wasnt taking off until the beginning of April.
“But its quite possible that people came back from skiing, infected their household, and so the transmission chain tends to die, so those who dont meet a lot of other people may not have been very infectious and didnt go to work for a few days.
“You only need one person to start a transmission chain, which is why contract tracing is important.
“COVID-19 may have been in the country at the beginning of the year, what it wasnt doing was transmitting successfully.”
Express.co.uk approached the Department of Health and Social Care to ask for support on a public inquiry into pinpointing the first cluster of cases and deaths.
The Government department acknowledged the rise in deaths between October and December 2019, but pointed out it was not as significant as the rise seen in late March 2020 – when the UK went into lockdown.
A Government spokeswoman added: “There is currently no evidence of sustained community transmission before January 2020.
“We are fully committed to learning more about this global pandemic, but our focus right now must remain on tackling the outbreak and saving lives.”