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expert reaction to first death in the UK of patient who tested positive for COVID-19

The first death in the UK of a patient who tested positive for COVID-19 was confirmed on Thursday 5th March 2020*. The patient was elderly with underlying health conditions.


Prof Nicola Stonehouse, Professor in Molecular Virology, University of Leeds, said:

“It remains important to contain the spread of infection e.g. the approach of isolating people who have come into contact with infected individuals. Alongside this, enhancing our diagnostic capacities might become a priority.”


Dr Robin Thompson, Junior Research Fellow in Mathematical Epidemiology, University of Oxford, said:

“The first death due to the coronavirus in the UK is very sad news.  Given the overall case fatality rate observed in China of between one and two percent, and the numbers of cases we have now seen in the UK, the first death in this country was inevitable at some point.  It is important to stress that this individual was both an older patient and had pre-existing medical conditions.  Both these factors contribute to an increased risk of death on infection with the virus.”


Dr Bharat Pankhania, Senior Clinical Lecturer at the University of Exeter, said:

“It’s very sad and unfortunate that we have now seen the first death in the UK as a result of COVID-19 and our thoughts are with the family.

“As we would expect, this was an older person with several underlying health conditions.  As we have learnt from China and elsewhere in the world, COVID-19 appears to affect the older generation more, and particularly those with coexisting health issues.

“This case appears to have been community acquired, meaning there was no known travel or contact with travellers or other known cases.  It’s therefore imperative that contact tracing takes place, including with all medical staff with whom this patient has had contact.  Everyone who looked after the patient will also need to be screened and monitored.  Additional steps may also need to be taken, such as additional monitoring of the clinical staff.”


Prof Jonathan Ball, Professor of Molecular Virology, University of Nottingham, said:

“It is very unfortunate to hear about the death of this patient.  Deaths are more frequent in elderly people and also people with underlying health conditions such as chronic lung disease, diabetes and heart disease.

“To ensure individuals continue to get high quality care if they are suffering from serious disease it is essential for us to try and delay and slow the spread of the virus to enable the NHS to better cope.

“The fact that eight of today’s new cases have an unknown source of infection illustrates why the government is now talking about delay rather than just contain, because it indicates there is likely chains of community human-to-human transmission which is almost impossible to contact trace because we don’t know the source.

“Chains of transmission allow the virus to go fairly undetected under the radar, which is why good surveillance is essential so you can identify any hotspots and hopefully then implement measures that would slow the spread of the virus within and from these hotspots.  If or when these chains of transmission do come, future measures could include targeted school closures and potential cancellation of some large meetings, and in general urging people to change behaviours.

“Key to delaying the spread of the virus is a good system of surveillance.  Whether or not 100 GP surgeries and eight hospitals will be sufficient is unclear.  In an ideal world we would be able to extend that surveillance more widely to get better granularity and therefore identify these hotspots more quickly and more accurately.  This would also require good availability of diagnostic testing kits and it is not clear whether that would be achievable.”


Prof Keith Neal, Emeritus Professor of the Epidemiology of Infectious Diseases, University of Nottingham, said:

“This unfortunate death is not unexpected given the number of cases and given we know that older people with underlying health conditions are most at risk.  It changes nothing about the spread of COVID-19 in the UK.”


Dr Michael Head, Senior Research Fellow in Global Health, University of Southampton, said:

“The first UK death is sad to note, but fits in with the pattern we have seen elsewhere, namely that the patient was older in age with existing health difficulties.  We can expect to see a small number of further deaths in the UK in the coming weeks, as case numbers increase and vulnerable populations become exposed.  Infection control and public health measures are particularly important in institutional populations, such as the elderly in care homes.”




The SMC also produced a Factsheet on COVID-19 which is available here:


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