Covid-19 one year on: How half-term skiing trips gave the virus a foothold in Northamptonshire

"The risk was low until a number of people tested positive and we had more and more imported cases," says health director

Wednesday, 3rd March 2021, 8:18 am
Our headlines follow the story of the first few days after Covid-19 first arrived in the county

Cast your minds back a year and it becomes obvious just how much coronavirus has astounded even experts.

England's national medical director, Professor Stephen Powis, grimly told reporters on March 28, 2020: “If we can keep deaths below 20,000 we will have done very well in this epidemic.

“If it is less than 20,000... that would be a good result though every death is a tragedy. But we should not be complacent about that.”

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Health director Lucy Wightman has led the county's fight against Covid-19 since day one

So far, 143,000 people are known to have died with coronavirus in the UK — including nearly 1,500 in Northamptonshire.

Lucy Wightman was hardly a household name when she confirmed the county's first Covid-19 case, insisting: “I’d like to reassure people that the risk to the general public continues to remain low."

Yet the county's Director of Public Health has led Northamptonshire's response to the pandemic from day one and firmly stands by that statement despite more than 45,000 of around 750,000-plus residents having since tested positive.

She said: "At that point we had one case who had known travel history to Italy, which was one of areas known for the first significant outbreak outside Wuhan.

"All members of the one family were tested and isolated immediately.

"So all the data we had at that point in time confirmed to us that the risk to the rest of Northamptonshire population was low.

"It's the context that starts to remind us what the story was which, if people remember, Italy and skiing seemed to be the most popular half-term activity last February.

"A number of people then tested positive in subsequent weeks as we had more and more imported cases

"What we hoped for was to contain those cases because they were travel-related.

"Our challenge was that it was a novel virus and we were still trying to understand how it was transmitted and how transmissible it was. We didn't really have that all that information until much later, so the risk did still feel low.

"The problem was it was much more transmissible than we thought and people were broadly asymptomatic — particularly those who travelled abroad, came back and didn't know they had it."

A government pledge to carry out 100,000 Covid-19 tests per day in England, ramping up capacity by the end of April finally gave health chiefs some ammunition to fight back.

Mrs Wightman added: "By time we actually recognised what we had on our hands and were able to undertake testing on a routine basis we had a very different picture on our hands.

"But that didn't become apparent until at least April or May.

"Based on information we had, everything we were saying at that point in time was correct."

"The challenge was we didn't understand enough about virus to recognise how it would exponentially expand."