Daughter calls for Kent man to be recognised as UK's first Covid victim

Matthew Weaver
·4-min read
<span>Photograph: Gareth Fuller/PA</span>
Photograph: Gareth Fuller/PA

The daughter of a man who died of Covid in Kent before the virus had been detected in the UK has called for her father to be officially acknowledged as Britain’s first victim of the pandemic.

Peter Attwood, 84, a retired company secretary from Chatham, died on 30 January last year at Medway hospital. A postmortem report completed last August based on retained samples from his lungs found that “the underlying cause [of death] is due to Covid-19 infection”.

Public health experts say Attwood’s case highlights the UK’s failure to properly monitor the emergence of the virus. It has also raised fears that the disease could have killed more people in early 2020 than is realised.

Attwood died five weeks before the first UK Covid death was declared, that of a woman in her 70s in the Royal Berkshire hospital in Reading on 5 March. Officials later revealed there had been other Covid deaths a few days before.

Attwood’s daughter, Jane Buckland, has called on the NHS to publicly recognise the historical significance of the cause of her father’s death more than a month before those cases.

Speaking to the Guardian, she said: “I’ve had nothing at all from the hospital. I don’t think they were at fault – it wouldn’t have gone through their heads to check him for Covid at that time. But I want somebody to say ‘we probably mucked up here and we can learn from this’.”

She added: “My dad’s death has not been acknowledged by the World Health Organization. It’s like he has been wiped from the memory. Those statistics are wrong. I’m not making this up, I’ve got the proof in black and white.”

Emails between Buckland and Kent and Medway coroner’s office suggest her father’s tissue samples were only tested for Covid after her requests. On 5 May she wrote to Nigel Monks, the coroner investigating the death, requesting a coronavirus test, citing a French man who was found to have died from the virus before it was officially detected in France.

Monks explained that the postmortem had not been completed because the tissue samples were kept at a hospital at Maidstone, which he was avoiding because of the lockdown at the time. He said that if Covid was found to be present, “at best I would be able to conclude ‘probably Covid’ or suspected Covid’.”

But when the postmortem report was completed on 21 August, by a consultant histopathologist, Dr Anna Rycroft, the conclusions were unequivocal. Rycroft wrote: “In my opinion the cause of death was … Covid-19 infection and bronchopneumonia.”

She explained why it had not been picked up earlier. “This gentleman’s death predates the official arrival of Covid-19 into the UK and at the time of the postmortem the now characteristic macroscopic features were not appreciated,” Rycroft wrote.

Attwood’s family said they may consider putting a up plaque to acknowledge him as the UK’s first Covid victim. Buckland said: “My dad didn’t like a fuss, but in future it might be an idea to have something that people can see and realise he was first person.”

Buckland said her father never travelled abroad. She fears she passed on the infection to him, but she was not tested for the virus. “It has taken me a long time to stop beating myself up about it,” she said.

Buckland, a former optician’s assistant who gave up to work to look after her parents, said: “How the hell did one person in this little place here be the first person to die from it in the UK? There must have been more.”

After Buckland was interviewed on Sky News earlier this year about her father’s death, she was contacted by the daughter of a man who died in the same ward as Attwood. The daughter thinks he may also have died from the virus, but she cannot now check because no samples were taken from her father.

Buckland said: “When you know how transmissible it was, I just wonder how many people in that hospital were infected.”

Matt Fowler, a co-founder of the campaign and support group Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice UK, said: “It is incredibly distressing to hear that people were dying as early as January. It’s another reminder that it didn’t have to be this way.”

Fowler, whose father, Ian, died aged 56 on 13 April, added: “The reason we want a public inquiry is ensure that mistakes aren’t repeated and we can learn from this.”

Jim McManus, a vice-president of the Association of Directors of Public Health, said Attwood’s case was a “sign of complacency” in how the arrival of virus was monitored.

He said: “You would not test an elderly man who had no risk factors for a disease that was linked to travel. But we should have been much, much more alert to an emerging infection. Surveillance for infectious disease is not part of the NHS’s expertise.

“We dropped a clanger on not monitoring this and the reason for that is financial. We invested in the science while cutting local public health teams.”

NHS England and Medway hospital have been approached for comment.