As the warnings grew louder, Boris Johnson’s government was distracted by Brexit. On testing, contact tracing and equipment supply, there was a failure to prepare
By late December last year, doctors in the central Chinese city of Wuhan were starting to worry about patients quarantined in their hospitals suffering from an unusual type of pneumonia.
As the mystery illness spread in one of China’s major industrial hubs, some tried to warn their colleagues to take extra care at work, because the disease resembled Sars (severe acute respiratory syndrome), the deadly respiratory disease that had killed hundreds of people across the region in 2002-03 after a government cover-up.
One of those who tried to raise the alarm, though only among a few medical school classmates, was a 33-year-old Chinese ophthalmologist, Li Wenliang. Seven people were in isolation at his hospital, he said, and the disease appeared to be a coronavirus, from the same family as Sars.
In early January he was called in by police, reprimanded for “spreading rumours online”, and forced to sign a paper acknowledging his “misdemeanour” and promising not to repeat it.
Many early cases were linked to the city’s Huanan seafood and fresh produce market, which also sold wildlife, suggesting that the first cases were contracted there.
Scientists would discover the disease had probably originated in bats and had then passed through a second species – in all likelihood, but not certainly, pangolins, a type of scaly anteater – before infecting humans.
But the infections were soon spreading directly between patients, so fast that on 23 January the government announced an unprecedented lockdown of Wuhan city and the surrounding Hubei province.
Two weeks later, on 7 February, Li, who had contracted coronavirus himself, died in hospital from the condition about which he had tried to raise the alarm. He had no known underlying conditions and left behind a wife and young child.
Li became the face of the mysterious new disease. The story of his death and pictures of him in a hospital bed wearing an oxygen mask made media headlines across the globe, including in the UK.
The world, it seemed, was slowly becoming more aware of how lethal coronavirus could be, that it was not just another form of flu with fairly mild symptoms.
But while UK scientists and medical researchers were becoming more concerned, and studying the evidence from China, those among them who were most worried were not getting their messages through to high places.