It started with a text message. ‘Please pick-up. Very important’. It was a Tuesday afternoon in late October, and I’d been working with my phone on silent – I hadn’t noticed the four missed calls from my ex-partner, Matt.
My stomach lurched. Matt had been looking after our four-year-old son, Milo for the past few days. Had he been in an accident? I called him. ‘I’ve just tested positive for coronavirus,’ he blurted. ‘I have to self-isolate, so my dad is going to drop Milo back off at your house in the next hour.’
It was the last thing I was expecting him to say – and the start of a six-week ordeal in which my son and I first tested negative, then days later positive.
Nilufer Atik, pictured with her son Milo, thought she adhered to all the various Covid-19 regulations, but she was still struck down by the virus
Ms Atik’s teacher ex-partner was looking after their son for a few days when he tested positive for Covid-19
Worse, I ended up in hospital and, as I tried to mentally retrace my steps during that time, have been left wondering at what exact moment did I actually catch Covid?
It’s a question I reckon thousands of people will be asking themselves right now – as cases once again surge in parts of the UK, with some talking ominously of a third wave.
The thing is, many people are working from home, with indoor activities limited to socially distanced shopping or visiting one or two relatives. Everyone I know is following the rules, so the high transmission rates appear somewhat of a mystery.
In the absence of any solid advice on exactly where people are contracting the virus the most – is it pubs, gym, shops or work? – I hope my story, and those of others I have since spoken to, will offer some clue as to what is and isn’t a risk.
The first thing I did after that fateful call with Matt was check the Government guidance: as I hadn’t actually seen my ex, and hadn’t been contacted by Test and Trace, I didn’t need to quarantine. Despite this, when Milo arrived back home I immediately went with him to my local drive-through test centre, just to be sure. The result came early the next morning: negative, for us both.
I felt reassured, and we went about life as normal. But two days later came a slight tickle in my throat, and a runny nose – but importantly, no cough, or temperature. Then, within days, exhaustion struck, and a sinking suspicious set in: perhaps I wasn’t out of the woods, after all.
Within 24 hours my chest felt like it was stuck in a vice and I couldn’t swallow or talk. I contacted NHS 111 and duly went online to order home test kits. As I’d feared, the result was positive for both me and Milo. Had the first test been wrong?
The most logical explanation would, after all, be that I’d caught it via my ex, Matt, 39, a teacher at a busy secondary school, who passed it to Milo – then he to me. Matt believes he had picked it up from a colleague or student.
After initially testing negative for Covid-19 herself, Ms Atik and Milo, right, both went on to develop the disease – with Ms Atik suffering pneumonia
He had no symptoms at first, apart from feeling more tired than usual, but had a test at a walk-in centre which came back positive. Within 24 hours of his isolation, he’d developed a chesty cough and headache – but no fever. But then I thought of Milo, who could have got it from the other kids at nursery, and passed it to his father.
Or if the first test was correct, Milo or I may have unwittingly picked up the virus in the handful of places we visited during that week – I’d been to the gym and the supermarket. There was a trip to the park, and the cinema, which in hindsight, I suddenly felt foolish having gone to.
After our positive tests, NHS Test and Trace asked me to list every person Milo and I had been in contact with in recent days.
The answer was no one I knew. But I’d walked among strangers in the supermarket. And in the cinema, although there was no one around us, I didn’t know who’d been in our seats before me.
As the days went on, Milo, thankfully, did not develop any symptoms. I, on the other hand, was less fortunate.
I didn’t have much of a cough, and my fever lasted for only two of the 20 days I was unwell. Instead, I suffered excruciating headaches, dizziness, a complete lack of appetite and nausea so extreme that I couldn’t even keep water down. I had diarrhoea, stomach cramps, back ache and chest pain which even prescription painkillers didn’t manage to quash.
After ten days stuck to the sofa, I started coughing up blood.
In a panic, and with Milo safe at Matt’s house (he had since recovered), I called an ambulance and was rushed to the local hospital. I was diagnosed with secondary pneumonia and attached to a fluid drip to treat dehydration, and given antibiotics to treat the infection on my lungs. I returned home the following day to parcels on my doorstep of soup, orange juice and noodles left by my wonderful neighbours. And, slowly, I began to feel better.
Other parents I’ve spoken to are similarly astonished by their mysterious infection.
Mel Dawson, a 47-year-old beautician from Staffordshire, was left equally baffled when her entire family tested positive last month, despite socialising with few people outside the house and living in a low-risk area.
Thankfully, neither Mel, her husband James or their two children, Amy, nine and Sarah, 11, suffered symptoms. Instead, the family were prompted to visit a local drive-in testing centre when one of Amy’s classmates tested positive.
Mel is convinced the infection spread via other children. ‘It was either school, or the neighbours’ children,’ she says. ‘Our kids play outside together all the time. And the parents told us last month that their children had it.’
But, from the start of the pandemic, officials have assured us that children are low risk, unlikely to both catch the virus or infect others. Ministers sanctioned mass return to school in September, citing that there was ‘little evidence’ that the virus is transmitted in educational settings.
Catherine Cuthburt, pictured, with her daughter Charlotte, left, tested positive for Covid-19 without hardly going anywhere. The only place the virus could have set in, she thinks, was a restaurant, where she went for lunch with a friend a week before her cough and muscle aches started
So what’s the truth?
Experts say it’s no coincidence that the biggest upsurge in coronavirus cases in the capital is in ten to 19-year-olds. According to Dr Julian Tang, consultant virologist at Leicester Royal Infirmary, official statements about low transmission in children were incorrect.
‘It’s true that primary school children don’t often get symptoms, so won’t get especially ill,’ he says. ‘And as they don’t get symptoms, they’re not super-spreaders of Covid, giving it to huge numbers of people, in the same way they do the flu, which does make kids ill.
‘But they can certainly still get infected with Covid and pass the virus on to others they come into close contact with.’
The worst culprits for spreading the virus are young teenagers.
‘The virus behaves the same way it does in adults,’ says Dr Tang, ‘but secondary school children are less likely to follow the rules than adults, meaning the risk of infections is even greater.’
Another indoor setting considered rife for spreading infection is hospitality venues such as restaurants and bars. Or, indeed, the cinema, which both Matt and I had visited leading up to our infections. While I’d gone to see a film with Milo, and sat in a near-empty screening, rows away from another person, Matt had gone with a friend, which, at the time, was permitted.
His friend, incidentally, tested positive a day after Matt did. But he assures me they’d sat with an empty seat between them and the rest of the cinema was empty.
Restaurants, say experts, are worse, given the large number of people in a smaller space.
This week, officials in the South Korean city of Jeonju traced the infection of several unconnected people back to a restaurant they all ate in at the same time, despite the fact they were sitting nowhere near each other.
And in October, one of a few British studies looking at the ideal settings for transmission, noted a direct link between the Eat Out To Help Out scheme and a sudden rise in infection rates.
‘Really crowded bars, restaurants and pubs are a likely point of infection,’ says Dr Paul Hunter, Professor of medicine at the University of East Anglia. ‘There’s multiple points in which transmission can occur – at the table, or as you’re waiting for your table, brushing past other diners.’
Catherine Cuthbert, 36, from Tunbridge Wells, tested positive for Covid-19 in September, along with her husband and, shockingly, her ten-month-old baby Charlotte, despite going ‘hardly anywhere’.
The only place the virus could have set in, she thinks, was a restaurant, where she went for lunch with a friend a week before her cough and muscle aches started.
People respecting the rules are baffled as to how they went on to develop Covid-19
While Catherine’s symptoms were mild, baby Charlotte developed a soaring temperature of more than 39 degrees, and was rushed to A&E, where the Covid tests yielded a dreaded result. Catherine says: ‘I was baffled. My husband works from home so had only been out of the house to do the supermarket shop, and was vigilant about handwashing and sanitising our food shopping.
‘I’d been out with Charlotte to just three places: a walk in the park with a friend, on the bus into town and to a local restaurant for lunch. And, while I will never know for certain, I think I caught Covid from the restaurant.
‘Staff weren’t wearing masks in the restaurant as it wasn’t mandatory at the time.’
Days later, reports in local newspapers surfaced of several cases contracted at the same restaurant. But what about the supermarket – visited by both Catherine’s husband, and me, in the week before this nightmare started?
Data based on 120,000 people who tested positive between November 9 and 15 shows the most commonly visited place in the days leading up to infection was a supermarket.
Dr Tang, who believes he caught Covid in a store, says: ‘Supermarkets are an obvious place for infection. They’re the epicentre of a community and people from all over town will be there on a pretty regular basis.
‘Social distancing can be difficult in supermarkets, and many have poor ventilation systems, meaning the virus can linger in the air.
‘Me and my wife hadn’t been anywhere in months where we’d come into contact with people. And then, after a trip to the supermarket, I caught it.
‘Perhaps it was when I was standing at the checkout.’
Another place that’s frequently visited by many, including myself, is the gym. In the week before Covid struck, I went every day at mid-afternoon, when it’s quiet. But I didn’t go within two metres of anyone, and had a shower immediately after finishing my workout.
According to Dr Tang, if the gym is large, like mine, and you go at non-peak times, transmission is unlikely. ‘If the ceiling is high there is a bigger volume of air circulating, making transmission harder,’ he says. ‘This is also true if the machines are well spread out.’
Despite this, while catching Covid far away from someone is rare, studies have shown the virus can linger in the air after the infected person has left the area. If I’d used a machine after an infected person, I could be at risk.
‘But if you are using hand sanitiser regularly, before and after you use a machine, then the risk of catching coronavirus through surface transmission is very minor,’ said Dr Tang. ‘Not to mention the fact your sweat has antiviral properties, so if you’re sweating a lot then this inhibits transmission.’
Oddly, the rule-breaking behaviour we’re told to be the riskiest of all – socialising in other people’s homes – wasn’t committed by any of the Covid patients I spoke to. While studies show that most infections are occurring in people’s households, those who live together account for most of these.
Even so, ‘going to someone’s house is more likely to result in transmission than going to a restaurant, even in areas where Covid cases are low,’ says Dr Tang. ‘It’s unlikely you’ll wear a mask or socially distance.’
And despite our commitment to following the rules, if someone else breaks them it puts us all at risk – as it increases the chances of the infection entering our social networks.
‘Minor indiscretions are still continuing to drive infections,’ says Dr Tang. ‘But infections are also occurring where people briefly forget to follow the rules or just can’t. This includes things like stopping to talk to a friend in a supermarket for a little too long, or giving a relative a hug.
‘It’s not so much about extreme flouting of the rules and more about a general lack of awareness.’
Six weeks on – yet to fully regain my sense of smell, and suffering a lingering cough at night – I’m no less perplexed about how I caught this dreadful disease. The truth is, of course, I’ll never really know.
Your Covid questions answered
Q: Can I phone my GP surgery or hospital and book in for my Covid jab?
A: No – you have to wait to be invited by your local NHS service. Since Britain’s Covid-19 vaccination programme began on Tuesday, there’s been some confusion about who will be first in line for the jab.
The Government has declared that healthcare workers and older Britons with underlying health conditions will take priority.
But, on Tuesday morning, a TV interview with a 91-year-old pensioner outside a London hospital – in which he said he rang up the hospital and asked to be vaccinated – went viral. ‘They said: “Well, come at half past 12,”’ the man – Martin Kenyon – explained.
But NHS England has since emphasised this is not what people should do.
Instead, they say those eligible should wait to receive a letter from the NHS or their local health board inviting them to come in for a jab.
Saffron Cordery, deputy chief executive of NHS Providers, said: ‘It is important that people wait to be contacted by the NHS to have their vaccine.
‘There is a rigorous, large-scale exercise already well under way to identify and contact people who will be first in line. This will help ensure that the process runs as smoothly as possible.’
Q: What does the Government hope to achieve with mass testing schemes?
A: When the pandemic began in the spring, Covid tests were hard to come by.
But now, thanks to billions of pounds of investment, the Government has capacity to test millions of Britons regularly – and plans to do so on a mass scale, even if people don’t have symptoms.
Mass testing was first piloted in Liverpool in early November, where everyone living or working in the city was offered a voluntary test.
And on Thursday, Health Secretary Matt Hancock announced that secondary-school children across London and Essex would also be offered mass testing, in response to the worrying rise in infections in this age group.
Put simply, the hope is that testing as many people as possible will identify early cases and get people to self-isolate before they have a chance to spread the infection.
Such testing projects are also being used to get people ‘back to normal’ as soon as possible.
For instance, some local health teams are trialling the use of mass testing for contacts of those with Covid in a bid to reduce the self-isolation period.
If they test negative every time, the person will be free to leave their home and won’t need to stay in their homes for ten days, as is currently required.
Speaking in Parliament last week, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said: ‘If successful, this approach will be extended across the health system next month and to the whole of England from January.’
Q: I have hay fever – does that mean I can’t get the Covid vaccine?
A: On Tuesday, two NHS workers had allergic reactions after taking the Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine.
The workers, who both had a history of serious allergies, are understood to have had an anaphylactoid reaction, involving a skin rash, breathlessness and drop in blood pressure.
Reactions such as this are uncommon, but do happen with other vaccines, like the flu jab. Both NHS workers are fine now but the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), the UK’s medicine regulators, has since released guidance telling people with a history of significant allergies and reactions not to have the Pfizer vaccine.
But the same doesn’t apply to those with mild allergies, such as hay fever.
The MHRA guidance defines an ‘allergy’ as a severe reaction to a vaccine, medicine or food – not pollen, as in hay fever – and classes a ‘significant’ reaction as one which would require the person to carry an adrenaline pen at all times – which both NHS workers did.