Woman, 75, ‘first to catch coronavirus within UK’


The earliest person to contract coronavirus within the UK has been identified, scientists believe.

Analysis of samples by the University of Nottingham showed a 75-year-old woman, from Nottinghamshire, tested positive on 21 February.

A Surrey resident was previously believed to have caught the virus first.

The woman is also understood to be first in the UK to die after contracting Covid-19.

News of the case has emerged only now, because samples were being analysed in retrospect by researchers as they investigated the origins of the UK pandemic.

Nearly 2,000 routine respiratory samples taken from patients at a Nottingham teaching hospital between January and March were tested.

The report states: “Patient 1 in this study is, to the best of our knowledge, the earliest described community-acquired case of SARS-CoV-2 in the UK, admitted to hospital care on the 21st of February 2020, and was also the first UK COVID-19 death, preceding the earliest known death by 2 days.”

Analysis by Michelle Roberts Health Editor

Until now, the first transmission of coronavirus within the UK was thought to have occurred on 28 February. But this new research suggests there were home-grown cases earlier than this.

Although the study comes from only one hospital in Nottingham, it signals that coronavirus was circulating undetected in Britain at least in early February 2020.

The findings are perhaps not surprising, given the limited testing early on in the pandemic which meant only a small number of people were checked for the virus.

Plenty of people have been doubting the official timeline of coronavirus spread. Other research published in May revealed France’s first case was in December 2019 – almost a month earlier than previously thought.

Studies like these help build a more complete picture of the history of the outbreak, but do not tell us what the virus will do next.

Even if more people have been exposed to the virus than first appreciated, it’s not clear whether this means more of us will be immune to the disease.

The work also revealed that early coronavirus cases in the UK would have been identified if testing criteria had at the time been less strict, say the scientists.

Professor Jonathan Ball, one of authors of the study, said there was “widespread community transmission of coronavirus” in Nottingham in early February.

However, the researchers said the cases went undetected because testing for coronavirus required a strict criteria to be met like a recent travel history.

‘Expand diagnostic capacity’

Prof Ball said: “Had the diagnostic criteria for Covid-19 been widened earlier to include patients with compatible symptoms but no travel history, it is likely that earlier imported infections would have been detected, which could have led to an earlier lockdown and lower deaths.

“However, the capacity for testing available nationally was not sufficient at the time to process the volume of testing required.

“In order to prepare for any future pandemic such as this, the UK urgently needs to invest in and expand diagnostic capacity within NHS and PHE diagnostic laboratory services.”

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “NHS Test and Trace is working, it’s completely free and is stopping the spread of coronavirus.

“During this unprecedented pandemic we have rapidly built the largest network of diagnostic testing facilities in British history, meaning anyone with coronavirus symptoms can get a test.”


Children raised in greener areas have higher IQ, study finds

Growing up in a greener urban environment boosts children’s intelligence and lowers levels of difficult behaviour, a study has found.

Damian Carrington www.theguardian.com 

The analysis of more than 600 children aged 10-15 showed a 3% increase in the greenness of their neighbourhood raised their IQ score by an average of 2.6 points. The effect was seen in both richer and poorer areas.

There is already significant evidence that green spaces improve various aspects of children’s cognitive development but this is the first research to examine IQ. The cause is uncertain but may be linked to lower stress levels, more play and social contact or a quieter environment.

The increase in IQ points was particularly significant for those children at the lower end of the spectrum, where small increases could make a big difference, the researchers said.

“There is more and more evidence that green surroundings are associated with our cognitive function, such as memory skills and attention,” said Tim Nawrot, a professor of environmental epidemiology at Hasselt University in Belgium, where the study was conducted.

“What this study adds with IQ is a harder, well-established clinical measure. I think city builders or urban planners should prioritise investment in green spaces because it is really of value to create an optimal environment for children to develop their full potential.”

The study, published in the journal Plos Medicine, used satellite images to measure the level of greenness in neighbourhoods, including parks, gardens, street trees and all other vegetation.

The average IQ score was 105 but the scientists found 4% of children in areas with low levels of greenery scored below 80, while no children scored below 80 in areas with more greenery.

The benefits of more greenery that were recorded in urban areas were not replicated in suburban or rural areas. Nawrot suggested this may be because those places had enough greenness for all children living there to benefit.

Behavioural difficulties such as poor attention and aggressiveness were also measured in the children using a standard rating scale, and the average score was 46. In this case, a 3% rise in greenery resulted in a two-point reduction in behavioural problems, in line with previous studies.

The researchers took into account the wealth and education levels of the children’s parents, largely ruling out the idea that families who are better placed to support children simply have more access to green space.

Higher levels of air pollution are known to impair intelligence and childhood development but this factor was also ruled out as an explanation.

Instead, the scientists suggested lower noise levels, lower stress – as found in other research on green space benefits – and greater opportunities for physical and social activities may explain the higher IQ scores.

Dr Mathew White, an environmental psychologist at Exeter University in the UK, who was not part of the study team, praised the quality of the research.

“I’m always wary of the term intelligence as it has a problematic history and unfortunate associations,” he said. “But, if anything, this study might help us move away from seeing intelligence as innate – it could be influenced by environment, and I think that is much more healthy.”

White said it was reasonable to suggest more exercise and less stress as reasons for the higher IQ scores. “But I’m not sure why general intelligence should be improved by these things,” he said. “My guess is the intelligence measures are really picking up a child’s ability to concentrate and stick at a task, which has been shown in green space studies before.”

A study of children living in Barcelona, published in 2015, showed more green space was associated with better working memory and attention.

The researchers in the new study were able to account for many of the factors likely to affect IQ but data on the type of green space was not available. Previous work has shown this can be important, with trees giving more benefit to child development than farmland or scrubland, for example.

The team also did not have information on where the pupils attended school but most Belgian children go to nearby schools.


The next algorithm disaster – This time, it’s housing growth – Neil O’Brien MP

Neil O’Brien: The next algorithm disaster – coming to a Conservative constituency near you. This time, it’s housing growth.

[According to Lichfields, the planning consultancy (see below) the algorithm would increase East Devon’s annual target from 928 to 1,614 (74% incease) – Owl]

Neil O’Brien is MP for Harborough. www.conservativehome.com

“Algorithms have been in the news, not for good reasons. One lesson from the A-levels row is that principles which seem reasonable can lead to outcomes you don’t expect. Another algorithm’s coming down the tracks: the new formula for how many houses must be built in different places. There are few with higher stakes.

I wrote about the housing White Paper in my last column: it proposes not just to change the methodology for assessing housing need, but also to make a standard methodology compulsory for the first time. In other words, if we don’t like the results of the new algorithm, we’ll have blocked off the emergency exits.

The new algorithm is set out here. It’s not particularly easy to read. For example, one of many factors is set out in bullet point 30:

Adjustment Factor = [( Local affordability factor t = 0 – 4 4) x 0.25) + (Local affordability ratio t = 0 – Local affordability ratio t = 10) x 0.25] +1 Where t = 0 is current yearr and t = -10 is 10 years back.

Clear enough for you?

I thought it might be a while before we saw what the new algorithm would produce in practice. But Lichfields, the planning consultancy, has translated the algorithm into what it would mean for local authorities.

The numbers that the formula spits out can be compared to the number of homes actually being delivered over recent years, or to the numbers in the current (optional) national formula. Whichever way you look at it, it’s controversial.

I’ve long argued we should concentrate more development in inner urban areas, for various reasons I’ll come back to below.  But this algorithm doesn’t do that – at least not outside London.  In the capital, the algorithm would indeed increase numbers substantially.

But in the rest of England the formula takes the numbers down in labour-run urban areas, while taking them dramatically up in shire and suburban areas which tend to be conservative controlled.

Overall, the algorithm proposes a south-centric model of growth for Britain (with some growth in the midlands).

If we compare the algorithm to recent delivery, the South East has been delivering just over 39,000 homes a year, and will be expected to increase that to just over 61,000, a 57 per cent increase. The East of England would see a 43 per cent increase, the East Midlands a 33 per cent increase, the West Midlands a 25 per cent increase and the South West a 24 per cent increase.

For the North East, North West and Yorkshire, the numbers the algorithm proposes are lower overall than the numbers delivered over recent years. But as with A-levels, the devil’s in the detail.

The really controversial changes are within regions, where the algorithm suggests jacking up numbers for shires, while taking them down in urban areas. Comparing the existing national formula to the proposal, we can see this for most large cities.

The number for Birmingham comes down 15 per cent, while the rest of the West Midlands goes up 52 per cent.

Numbers for Leicester go down 35 per cent. The rest of Leicestershire goes up 105 per cent.

Nottingham goes down 22 per cent, the rest of Nottinghamshire goes up 48 per cent.

Southampton goes down 17 per cent, Portsmouth down 15 per cent and Basingstoke down 23 per cent, but the rest of Hampshire would go up 39 per cent.

Wealthy Bristol would see some growth (5 per cent) but much lower than the rest of Gloucester, Somerset and Wiltshire (47 per cent).

It’s the same story up north. Leeds down 14 per cent, Sheffield down 19 per cent, and Bradford down 29 per cent. But the East Riding up 34 per cent, North Yorkshire up 80 per cent, and North East Lincolnshire up 123 per cent.

In the north west the core cities of Manchester (-37 per cent) and Liverpool (-26 per cent) see huge falls, while the areas around them shoot up. In Greater Manchester, for example, the growth is shifted to the blue suburbs and shires. Outer parts go up: Wigan up 10 per cent, Bury, up 12 per cent, and Rochdale up 97 per cent. And areas to the south and north of the conurbation up much further: Cheshire up 108 per cent, while Blackburn, Hyndburn, Burnley and the Ribble Valley together go up 149 per cent.

But it isn’t just that the numbers in the new formula are lower than the old formula for urban areas. In many cases the new formula suggests a lower number than their recent rate of delivery. This is true of Sheffield (12 per cent below actual delivery), Leeds (16 per cent), Bradford (23 per cent), the entire North East (28 per cent), Nottingham (30 per cent), Manchester, (31 per cent), Leicester, (32 per cent) and Liverpool (59 per cent). The new formula seems to assume we are going to level down our cities, not level up.

It’s true that there’s another step between the Housing Need Assessment which this algorithm produces and the final housing target, which can be reduced a bit to account for delivery constraints like greenbelt.

But if we go with this algorithm unamended, outside London most Conservative MPs will be seeing large increases in the housing targets for their constituencies, while many Labour MPs see their local targets reduced. Is this what we want?

Leaving aside the politics, I think not. Compared to the rest of Europe, the UK has much less dense cities.

Places like Dundee, Glasgow, Liverpool, Sunderland, Birkenhead, Hull and Newcastle all had smaller populations in 2017 than 1981, while places like Birmingham and Manchester weren’t much bigger. Our cities have untapped potential, many went through a period of shrinkage and have space, and there are health and environmental reasons to prefer urban growth too.

In dense urban areas, people are more likely to walk or cycle – and in the UK, people in cities walk twice as far as those in villages each year. This reduces public transport costs and improves health.

Denser cities can sustain better public transport and so cut car congestion and time spent travelling. As well as reducing pollution from transport, denser cities reduce energy use and pollution because flats and terraced homes are much more energy efficient.

I’m not sure the draft algorithm is even doing what Ministers wanted it to. The document in which it is set out says that “the Government has heard powerful representations that the current formula underestimates demand for housing in the growing cities in the Northern Powerhouse by being based on historic trends.”

But the algorithm seems to do the exact opposite.

There may be technical reasons why things aren’t working out: there’s lots of ways to measure affordability… differences between residence-based and workplace-based income measures… there were certain caps in the old model, population projections have changed and so on.

However, the bigger issue is this.

There’s no “objective” way of calculating how many homes are “needed” in an area. While there are ways of carving up the numbers that are seen as more or less fair, ultimately a vision is required.

Projections of population growth are circular: the projected population growth for the farmland between Bletchley and Stony Stratford would’ve been pretty low before we built Milton Keynes there.

Likewise the forecast for the derelict Docklands of the early 1980s. While there are real economic constraints, the future need not resemble the past.

Though it took a huge effort, Germany raised East Germans from 40 per cent to just 14 per cent per cent below the national average income since reunification. That’s levelling up.

Do we want to continue to concentrate growth in the South East? Do we want European-style denser cities, or for them to sprawl out a bit more? An algorithm can help deliver a vision: but it’s not the same as one.”


Exmouth homes picked at random will have vote on how £300K is spent on sport

Another, rather different form of consultation – Owl

Becca Gliddon eastdevonnews.co.uk 

Residents in Exmouth are being selected at random to vote on how £300,000 will be spent on boosting sport in the town.

East Devon District Council will post out 5,000 letters to homes in Exmouth, asking residents to vote for their favourite projects.

The £300,000 fund, collected by the council from house developers building in the area, will be used to create new sports facilities, or improve existing ones.

Last year EDDC canvased Exmouth residents and groups on how best to spend the Section-106 developer cash.

From next week selected residents will be asked to choose which of seven eligible projects, chosen by the council, should receive a cash boost.

They will receive a unique code to register their vote online.

Cllr Geoff Jung, EDDC portfolio holder for coast, country and environment, said: “I would urge everyone that gets a letter to please take the time to vote, they really can make a difference.

“This is a fantastic amount of money to spend in Exmouth on some much-needed sports improvements.

“We would usually do the voting face-to-face at large events, but in these current difficult times that isn’t possible and isn’t likely to be possible for some time to come.

“This way of doing an online vote ensures that only people that live in Exmouth can vote, and that people can’t vote multiple times.

“This means the vote is more meaningful and representative.”

The seven projects residents will be asked to consider are:

  • £150,000 to resurface the large sand-astro pitch at Exmouth Community College, which is at the end of its life. The pitch is used by community groups in the evenings, and college students in the week.
  • £210,000 for a new drainage system at Exmouth Rugby Club for the two pitches and grass area next to Marine Way. Currently matches and training are often called off because of waterlogged pitches.
  • £240,000 to expand the current free-to-use Phear Park concrete skate park, used by skateboarders, scooters and BMX riders.
  • £150,000 for new sports equipment at Brixington park, all free to use; a games area with goal, an outdoor gym, pitch improvements – drainage, levelling and new football goals; a marked cycle area, extended and improved footpaths and seating.
  • £40,000 for additional, safer, car parking at Withycombe Raleigh Common Football Pitches, home of the Brixington Blues and used by other clubs.
  • £5,000 for a free-to-use back and neck stretch and exercise wall in Phear Park, with instructions.
  • £60,000 for a free-to-use concrete humped and sloped track in Carter Avenue Park for BMX, skate boards and scooters.

Letters will be arriving at the 5,000 randomly-selected Exmouth homes in the week beginning August 31.

EDDC said extra measures would be taken if certain age groups or locations were deemed ‘significantly under-represented’ in the vote.

Cllr Paul Millar, EDDC portfolio holder for democracy and transparency, said: “Rather than wait until physical voting can take place again, I am delighted that with the support of council staff, a way of having the Exmouth community voting remotely has been identified and created.

“With £300,000 of developer contributions to distribute, these are significant projects, the completion of which will support exercise opportunities and wellbeing across the town.”

He added: “As the council plan for a future post-Covid, the quality of council-owned outdoor spaces has never been more important.

“I urge everybody who receives a letter, to take the time to read through the project proposals and vote on which projects will ultimately get the go ahead.”


Public consultation starts on flood risk management strategy

At this stage this consultation looks to Owl to be dealing with procedural issues of how Devon County Council and other agencies should  develop plans, who is responsible for what etc. The interesting stage will be the next one. Just get on with it – Owl

Beth Sharp www.sidmouthherald.co.uk 

A public consultation is underway on Devon’s latest flood risk management strategy.

The draft document, produced by Devon County Council and partner authorities, outlines how the risk of flooding to property and infrastructure will be managed and reduced over the next six years, from 2021 to 2027.

The strategy looks at how plans for flood alleviation schemes can be developed and how communities can increase their resilience against flooding and the impact of climate change.

Through partnership working and community engagement, investment is prioritised to target high risk communities. Natural and sustainable flood management measures will be promoted, where appropriate, in all flood investigations and improvement projects, to reduce the scale, or need, of hard engineering solutions.

The second part of the strategy prioritises areas and communities to be considered for investment in flood alleviation works.

Although priorities are subject to change, it currently includes Sidmouth, Exeter, Kingsbridge, Tiverton, Dawlish, Teignmouth, Exmouth, Newton Abbot, Seaton, Kingsteignton, Totnes, Bideford, Ilfracombe, Budleigh Salterton, Crediton and Okehampton.

Industry professionals, town and parish councils and members of the public are all invited to have their say before the consultation closes on Thursday, October 15.

Councillor Roger Croad, Devon County Council cabinet member for environment, said: “We want to ensure Devon is more resilient against the risk of flooding and that the county is adapting and preparing for the effects of future climate change. We recognise that flood risk to property and infrastructure is increasing as a result of climate change, and we’re seeking to proactively manage this with our partners, in a way that is underpinned by the latest science and projections, using local expertise and knowledge.

“This document not only sets out the strategy for reducing flood risk in Devon, but also how to do so in a sustainable way that will minimise the negative impacts on the natural, built and historic environment.

“Where possible it’s also seeking improvements that will benefit Devon’s communities and natural environment.”

The draft strategy can be viewed on Devon County Council’s Have Your Say webpages.