These people are convinced they had Covid last year as hospitals recorded spikes in admissions for respiratory conditions
Hospitals across the north west recorded spikes in respiratory-related admissions just months before the pandemic officially started, an investigation has revealed.
All of the region's largest hospitals - Blackpool Victoria, Royal Preston, Royal Blackburn, Royal Lancaster, and Furness General - admitted more people in December than any other month in the past five years.
Only three smaller hospitals with far fewer admissions - Chorley, Burnley, and Westmorland - did not.
The findings cast further doubt on the official story that Covid-19 only emerged at the end of 2019 before making its way around the world, claiming the lives of more than one million people so far.
Dr John Campbell, a retired nurse teacher and A&E nurse whose YouTube videos on the pandemic have been watched millions of times, said the data "is a strong indicator that Covid may well have been spreading", "potentially" in December and "certainly" by January.
The lack of testing for the coronavirus at the time means it is impossible to say for sure whether those admitted to hospital had the disease, though Dr Campbell said there are a number of ways experts could still determine if Covid arrived on our shores earlier than is currently accepted, including testing samples taken during post-mortem examinations or even digging up bodies, a tactic used during the Spanish Flu outbreak of 1918.
And he urged authorities to learn as much from the pandemic as possible, saying it was "lucky" it was only sparked by a coronavirus, which kills relatively few compared a zoonotic virus, which he said kills "20 times more".
Dr Sakthi Karunanithi, Lancashire's director of public health, appeared to suggest a probe could now follow into the stats, which he admitted show "a higher than average number of admissions ... due to respiratory conditions", which are a hallmark of Covid.
He said: "This could include illnesses we'd usually expect to see in winter, such as flu, but we'd need to look at more details about the cases to understand the reasons for this."
Despite the world not being alerted to the emerging disease by China until December 31 last year, there are fears Covid was already spreading rapidly through the global population. Some scientists believe it erupted as early as October.
In Italy, researchers were looking at whether a higher than usual number of severe pneumonia and flu cases in late 2019 may be proof of earlier transmission, while traces of Covid were found in sewage samples collected in Milan and Turin in December.
Water firm United Utilities, which covers the north west of England, said it routinely samples wastewater and began working with the University of Bangor in the spring as part of a Covid study. Earlier samples, however, such as those taken in December and January, were not tested for the disease.
Until recently, the UK's first Covid-related death was thought to have happened in March, with the earliest recorded case caught in the UK on February 21.
But it was revealed last month that Kent man Peter Attwood, 84, whose death in January was initially chalked up to heart failure and pneumonia, may have been the first victim, not just in the UK but also outside of China.
He fell ill with a cough and fever just after Christmas despite not leaving the country, with daughter Jane telling a national newspaper: "Covid has obviously been around for much longer than we know.
"My father could still be here if we'd known about the threat of this horrible virus earlier."
Jane, 46, accused China of a cover up, something that has been denied by officials there.
It's not the first time the official narrative has been challenged.
While the origin of the virus is still subject of debate and conspiracy theories, with China insisting it emerged at a wet market in the city of Wuhan and not a government-controlled virology lab just miles away, the timeline has also been questioned.
A study by American university researchers, who looked at satellite photos of car parks outside major hospitals in Wuhan, found a "steep increase" in vehicle counts from August last year, peaking in December. Queries for 'cough' and 'diarrhoea' on a Chinese search engine also rose, the study, which was rejected by China as "extremely absurd", claimed.
Google searches for 'cough' in the UK last year peaked in the last week of December.
Around 160 of people living in Lancashire and on the Fylde coast this week came forward to report being ill with Covid symptoms late last year or early this year and said they strongly believe they caught the disease.
Online pet supply firm owner Nicola, 36, from Bispham, who did not want her surname to be printed, said she was hit by a mystery bug that left her in bed for two days, shortly after her son developed a cough and fever.
She said: "I started with an annoying cough, sore throat, and was unable to taste anything.
"I had a constant metallic taste in my mouth and spent two nights on the landing with a fan as I was having bad sweats while being freezing cold.
"I did not think I would wake up. I was taking little shallow breaths because deep breaths hurt."
Karen Robinson, 59, a senior carer who lives on the Beacon Fell View Holiday Park in Longridge, said she woke up with a constant cough last October.
By early the next morning, she had lost her sense of taste and smell and was struggling to breath and was taken to hospital, where she spent six days on oxygen.
She said: "I have never been as ill as that before. They diagnosed me with a virus but they did not know what."
Karen said it took four weeks to recover, though she still experiences a "weird" smell she can't describe.
"It's like a smell and taste at the same time," she said. "I don't know what it is. It's not horrible but I can't explain it.
"I'm convinced I had Covid but seeing as they weren't testing for it then I don't know."
She added: "The respiratory wards were full. There were quite a lot of young ones and I said it's like there's something in the air, and then all this came about in January."
Michelle Chandler-Haynes, 47, from Coppull, was in Royal Preston Hospital last November for an unrelated matter when she suffered what she calls a "funny turn", which left her on the brink of death.
Medics worked on her for 45 minutes as her heart raced and she became unresponsive.
After pulling through and recovering from a host of serious problems, including sepsis, Michelle didn't immediately suspect Covid, despite being left without a proper sense of taste for several months.
Then she went back into hospital in June for an operation.
Michelle, who was recently made redundant, said: "I got chatting to one of the nurses who was drafted onto the Covid ward.
"She said, ''I swear you had Covid in November.'
"I was taken aback and said, 'I don't understand why'.
"She said, 'That issue you had was respiratory and that was not normal. It's not something we see with sepsis and not in the way it happened to you'.
"I regret not asking more questions at the time."
Michelle now believes she may be suffering from 'long Covid' - lingering effects of the disease that last an indeterminate amount of time - having had severe yet unexplained muscle pain that has forced her to seek further treatment.
Lee Hannah, 50, of Riversleigh Avenue, North Shore, said he is "100 per cent positive" he caught Covid in October, and said: "It wiped me out."
The plumbing teacher, who works at Preston's College, said he had a cough, severe fatigue, fever, and breathlessness, and lost his sense of taste and smell.
He went to his GP and claims he was told: "You're a teacher, you're an educated man. Go home and get over it."
But he said his illness was "different than anything I have ever experienced before", including a bout of pneumonia several years ago.
The admission figures were obtained from the NHS trusts running each hospital in the region under freedom of information laws.
Documents revealed that:
* Royal Blackburn Hospital in east Lancashire has routinely had the most respiratory-related admissions, with 1,692 in December, which was a five-year high and 25 per cent higher than the previous high of 1,357 noted last January;
* Royal Lancaster Infirmary had 1,023 admissions in December, above a previous high of 989 in December 2016;
* Royal Preston Hospital admitted 917 patients, ahead of its second highest number, 857, in January 2018;
* Blackpool Victoria Hospital also had a record month with 731 admissions, though that number is only two higher than in January 2018;
* Furness General Hospital recorded 637 admissions, above a previous high of 620 in January 2018;
* Only the hospitals with fewer admissions on average failed to record five-year highs: Chorley, which had 269 admissions in December, Burnley, which had 91, and Westmorland, which had 30.
Chorley is run by the same NHS trust as Preston, Burnley by the same trust as Royal Blackburn, and Westmorland by the same trust as the Furness.
According to the World Health Organisation, most people infected with the Covid virus will "experience mild to moderate respiratory illness", though some fall seriously ill or die.
When asked whether it is possible that Covid was in Lancashire in December, or whether it could otherwise explain the figures, none of the hospital trusts responded.
They also did not say whether they were aware of the spikes at the time.
Instead, the NHS provided a statement which read: "In Lancashire and South Cumbria, we are aware that we have some of the poorest outcomes for health and wellbeing in the country and nearly one third of our residents live in some of the most deprived areas across England.
"The main causes of ill-health are cancer, cardiovascular, respiratory, mental health, and neurological conditions.
"There is also a significant level of unwarranted variation in the number of years people can expect to live a healthy life.
"We have been working closely with Directors of Health over the past two years on these challenges we face and putting plans in place as a system to address these.”
Dr Harmony Otete, a lecturer in medical statistics at the University of Central Lancashire, said "well conducted trend analysis" of the data would need to be carried out to say for sure whether the spikes were caused by Covid, and warned that no definite conclusions can currently be drawn.
Asked if it was possible the coronavirus was here by December, she said: "There is no simple answer. On one hand, we still lack any definitive evidence that there was transmission of the virus in the UK earlier than we currently know.
"Suspicions are currently based on reports from individuals.
"On the other hand, it could have been. Viruses are typically around before they are detected, and we are all aware of ongoing debates about inaccuracies in the timeline of the first confirmed case in China, with some suggestion that it could have been as early as November."
Dr Otete added: "The only way to know about the origin of the coronavirus in the UK for sure is if we go back to test samples of the patients who presented with flu-like or respiratory symptoms in the UK in December.
"While some researchers have begun analysing samples of patients who presented with 'lung' illness early in the year to shed some more light on this, it goes back to as early as January and cannot tell us about earlier periods.
"So, we may never know."
A Government spokesman said: "There is currently no evidence of sustained community transmission of Covid-19 in the UK before January 2020.
"We acted swiftly to curb coronavirus and at all times we have been guided by the best available evidence to deliver a strategy designed to protect the NHS and save lives.
“As we have said, there will be opportunities to look back, analyse and reflect on all aspects of Covid-19.
"For now, the Government is focused entirely on responding to the pandemic and saving lives.”
(Update 16/10/2020: Following publication of this story, the Wrightington, Wigan, and Leigh Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust also released its figures, which showed December 2019 as a joint five-year high for respiratory-related admissions, on a par with January 2019)