Public health officials have teamed up with Border Force to trace 2,000 airline passengers who flew into Britain from Wuhan, China, in the past fortnight, to check if they are suffering symptoms of coronavirus.
In a significant escalation of measures to prevent the deadly virus from spreading in the UK, the government said it would be tracking down those who could have been in the incubation period when they landed, but may have appeared symptomless.
Flights from Wuhan are currently suspended, but following a meeting of the government's emergency committee, Cobra, the Chief Medical Officer Prof Chris Witty announced that a Public Health hub of seven clinicians will now be established at Heathrow to monitor people coming from other parts of China.
The official death toll in China has now risen to 41, with more than 1,300 confirmed cases. One of those killed was a doctor in China's Hubei province.
So far, 14 people tested for coronavirus in Britain have been given the all-clear but checks are still ongoing on ‘a handful’ of new cases, and an expert at Public Health England (PHE) said it was ‘highly likely’ the virus would reach the UK.
On Friday night, the first cases were confirmed in Europe as three patients were identified in France. Australia also reported its first case last night while Malaysia confirmed three cases.
Speaking after Cobra, which was chaired by the Health Secretary Matt Hancock, Prof Witty, said: “We think there's a fair chance we may get some cases over time.
“Of course this depends on whether this continues for a long time, or whether this turns out to be something which is brought under control relatively quickly.
“I think we should definitely see this as a marathon, not a sprint we need to have our entire response based on that principle.”
The Department of Health said most people who develop symptoms will get them after leaving the airport and so it was essential they knew what to do if they became ill.
When asked why no physical tests were carried out on arrivals into the UK from Wuhan, before flights had stopped, Mr Whitty said: "Every country does this slightly differently, that's always been the case.”
He said that after a meeting of the Scientific Advisory Group of Experts, it was concluded: "The screening would not really provide any appreciable increase in benefit for the UK public."
'Highly likely' virus will spread to UK
Dr Paul Cosford, emeritus medical director for Public Health England (PHE) said: “There are no positive cases in the UK as yet, but we will go on testing and those numbers will of course change,” he told Radio 4’s Today programme.
“I think it's highly likely that we will have cases in the UK, and of course every so often we do get new infections coming from the animal kingdom such as this one.”
All the people tested in the UK are thought to have visited Wuhan and four out five patients tested in Scotland were from China, Downing Street said.
Dr Cosford said anyone returning from China who experienced symptoms should avoid ‘pitching up’ at hospitals or their GP, and instead contact NHS 111.
But he said that the majority of people would probably recover if they contracted the virus.
China scrambles to respond
The Chinese city of Wuhan is rapidly building a new 1,000-bed hospital to treat victims, while Disneyland Shanghai and parts of the Great Wall of China have been closed to visitors. Starbucks said on Friday that it would close all of its coffee shops in the Hubei province during the New Year holiday.
It comes as China expanded severe travel limits to more than 14 cities, corralling at least 56 million million people in a wide-ranging quarantine as authorities desperately attempt to demonstrate that they are in control of the coronavirus ahead of Lunar New Year celebrations.
All 70,000 of China’s cinemas, as well as attractions such as the Shanghai Disneyland and the Beijing stretch of the Great Wall of China, closed their doors.
In Wuhan, the city at the epicentre of the outbreak, construction of a brand new 1,000-bed hospital - which the government pledged will be completed within a week - also began, amid concerns about a shortage of beds and equipment.
But the virus has continued to spread internationally, with the United States recording a second infection - this time a woman in her 60s in Chicago. Singapore has now confirmed three cases, while Nepal has identified its first and Thailand its fifth.
Private school groups are advising their members to consider planning for the possibility that pupils may not be able to travel during upcoming half term holidays in mid-February.
A spokesperson for The Girls' Schools Association said “We are monitoring the situation carefully and are advising schools to consider planning for the eventuality that some pupils may not be able to travel home, or may choose not to travel home, for the half term or Easter holidays”.
China sends more students to UK fee-paying schools than any other nation, data shows.
The World Health Organization (WHO) is still refusing to declare an international public health emergency, which some experts said is ‘surprising.’
In the past, the agency has been accused of overreacting to emerging pandemics, such as its response to bird flu in 2009.
Dr Stephen Griffin, associate professor at the University of Leeds, said: "The proportion of severe cases appears high. My hope is that this is not a decision that we might come to regret."
Peter Piot, professor of global health and director at London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said the outbreak is in a ‘critical phase’ in which intensified international collaboration and more resources was crucial.