Britons have been urged to self-isolate and assume they have Covid-19 if they suffer from a loss of smell after warnings tens of thousands of cases are being missed.
Loss of smell and possibly taste has been added to fever and a persistent cough as the crucial early warning signs to assume you have the bug.
UK guidance states from today you should self-isolate for seven days if you develop any of the three symptoms.
Asked why the symptoms weren't added sooner, Boris Johnson’s official spokesman said: “The UK’s Chief Medical Officers continually review all symptoms to consider whether updates are required. The list of symptoms is a matter for the UK Chief Medical Officers.”
The change in official UK guidance comes after independent experts warned up to 70,000 people may currently have the virus but are going undiagnosed.
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Brits suffering from loss of taste and smell may have been unknowingly infected friends and family and increasing the UK outbreak.
England’s Deputy Chief Medical Officer acknowledged there was some data suggesting more than 50% of Covid-19 patients may suffer from loss of smell - officially known as anosmia.
Some evidence suggests it is more common in women with Covid-19.
Prof Jonathan Van-Tam said: “This [symptom] has to be something that’s new to you.
“The reason for making the change now is there has been a signal around possible the importance of anosmia as a symptom for a while now.
“It’s been important to continue to look at that and make sure we look at that and make sure we consider it and introduce it at the right time when we think it’s going to make a difference.”
The new basic case definition includes “loss of or a change in your normal sense of smell”. The guidance acknowledges this could also affect taste.
Officially less than 250,000 Brit have been diagnosed with confirmed coronavirus - but millions of cases have been missed because of a lack of mass testing.
At least 17 other countries including the US have already altered their list of symptoms to include anosmia.
Prof Tim Spector, leader of the Covid symptom study app at King’s College London, said 50,000 to 70,000 people in the UK with Covid-19 are not being told to self-isolate.
He blamed Public Health England and the Government tracking strategy, saying an insistence that only temperature and cough were the major symptoms was missing thousands of cases.
“At the moment, people are being told to go back to work if they’re a care worker, and they’ve got something like loss of smell or taste or severe muscle pains or fatigue – things that we know and we’ve shown are related to being swabbed positive,” he told BBC Radio 4.
“This country is missing the ball in underestimated cases but also putting people at risk, and continuing the epidemic.
“So we really do need to tell PHE to get in line with the rest of the world, and make people more aware. There’s no point telling people to be alert if they don’t know the symptoms.
“At the moment they’re not really being offered tests, and they’re being told not to self-isolate if they don’t have the fever and the cough and it’s probably around half of the people in the population who are in that situation.
Prof Van Tam said UK advisors had been looking at this since March 27 and said it had been a “difficult bit of science”.
Experts on the UK’s New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (NERVTAG) were unsure whether anosmia developed before or after Covid-19 infection.
They now estimate the case definition change will mean Covid-19 cases picked up with increase from 91% to 93%.
Scientists had warned Britain was behind the rest of the world in sticking to only fever and a cough as symptoms for their official case definition.
Previous research suggested people with anosmia as well as other symptoms were three times more likely to test positive.