Matt Hancock has said “the best information we have” suggests coronavirus arrived in the UK with holidaymakers returning from half-term breaks in Italy and Spain back in February.
The health secretary was asked by LBC’s Nick Ferrari about a report in The Sunday Times which suggested that coronavirus arrived in the UK as early as the new year.
“There were reports over the weekend that the virus arrived in this country possibly around January of February, a tracker app suggested that,” Mr Ferrari said.
“Is that a real possibility, that we might have had it earlier in this country than we knew?”
Hancock said the government was currently attempting to trace the “path of the virus” but warned that there were questions about the reliability of data.
“Well you can’t rule it out,” he responded, “But also what you need to do to understand that, is to get the genetic code from the early cases.
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“And I saw that on a tracker app. The challenge is that you’re asking people a couple of months later to report their symptoms some time ago. So there’s queries over the reliability of the information.
“We absolutely will look into all of those things. We can decode the genes in the virus itself, and that way you can see the path of the virus.
“But the best information we have is that it came to this country in large numbers from Italy and Spain during half term, and that’s when it seeded here.”
According to The Sunday Times, data gathered from around 2.6 million people who signed up to King’s College London’s Covid Symptom Tracker app showed the virus may have arrived in Britain back in January.
Professor Tim Spector, a leading epidemiologist from the university, said it is highly likely the disease was circulating soon after new year.
“We’re getting hundreds of the people using our app telling us that they developed something soon after the new year,” he told the newspaper.
“The reports I am getting are from people who were ill from early January onwards and strongly suggest they had COVID-19 but were not recognised as such.”
Two Chinese nationals were officially declared the first people in the UK to test positive the virus on 31 January.
As of Monday afternoon, there have been more than 157,000 confirmed cases in the UK.