About 100,000 people could be infected with the new coronavirus around the world, experts have warned, as the UK government faced calls to reassure people that the NHS is ready to deal with any British cases within days.
Prof Neil Ferguson, a public health expert at Imperial College, said his “best guess” was that there were 100,000 affected by the virus even though there are only 2,000 confirmed cases so far, mostly in the city of Wuhan in China where the virus first appeared.
“Sooner or later we will get a case,” he said. “There are very large numbers of Chinese tourists across Europe right now. Unless the Chinese manage to control this, and I’m sceptical about whether that is possible, we will get cases here.”
Although no one has yet tested positive for coronavirus in the UK, Labour called on the government to reassure the public that the NHS could cope with an outbreak when it is already struggling with the winter flu season.
Jonathan Ashworth, the shadow health secretary, said: “The NHS is currently under immense strain this winter with staff already working flat out and hospitals overcrowded. We need urgent reassurance from ministers they have a plan to ensure we have capacity in place to deal with coronavirus should we need to.”
Priti Patel, the home secretary, insisted on Sunday that the government was taking “all precautions”, despite criticism it had been slow off the mark to find and give information to the thousands of people in Britain who had flown back from Wuhan in recent weeks.
Prof Martin Dove, a British academic, said no one from the UK government had tried to contact him regarding the coronavirus outbreak despite recently returning home from working in Wuhan.
Others have said the UK authorities have been difficult to contact with the British embassy in Beijing shut on Friday and over the weekend, as well as Monday and Tuesday for the lunar new year. A Foreign Office spokesman said there would be some staff working despite the official closure and pointed to its 24-hour emergency assistance number.
There was also no clarity on Sunday over whether the government would evacuate the estimated 200 Brits trapped in Wuhan, with the Foreign Office advising against all travel to Hubei province but providing scant information on how to leave the affected areas. This is in contrast to France, the US and Japan, who are putting in place logistics to get their citizens out.
Patel said the government was “looking at all the options”, which could include airlifting UK citizens out of the worst-affected area.