Chris Smyth, Whitehall Editor | Kieran Andrews | Richard Lloyd Parry, Asia Editor | Helen Puttick
Five travellers from China are being tested for a deadly virus in British hospital isolation units. The NHS has been told to question all patients with chest infections in efforts to stop it spreading.
Matt Hancock, the health secretary, has warned that it is increasingly likely that cases of a novel coronavirus will emerge in Britain as part of a “rapidly developing” outbreak that has led to China putting millions of people under quarantine. There are more than 630 cases in China with 18 dead, including one outside the epicentre.
Today three patients are being examined in Edinburgh and in Glasgow and a further two in Tayside after travelling from Wuhan, the eastern Chinese city where the virus is thought to have spread from animals to humans. All are showing the flu or pneumonia-like symptoms that are consistent with the disease but coronavirus has not been confirmed.
Edinburgh University has an overseas campus about eight hours from Wuhan and Jürgen Haas, head of infection medicine at the university, said to expect cases in Britain.
“The situation will be pretty similar in pretty much all UK cities with a large number of Chinese students,” Professor Haas said. “My suspicion is that there will probably be many more cases in many other cities in the UK.”
Chinese officials have confirmed the first death outside the epicentre. An 80-year-old man diagnosed with coronavirus died yesterday in northern Hebei province. The area neighbours Beijing.
The Chinese capital has cancelled large gatherings and closed the Forbidden City, its most famous tourist attraction, until further notice. The 11 million residents of Wuhan have been blocked from leaving. Four other cities around Wuhan covering 10 million people also faced a clampdown, with public transport suspended, roads closed and cafes and markets shut.
Vietnam said that two Chinese citizens had tested positive while India said that an Indian nurse working in Saudi Arabia has been infected. Thailand has four cases while Singapore, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and the United States have reported one each.
Mr Hancock told the Commons that he would “not hesitate” to impose further checks on flights if other cities were as badly hit as Wuhan, the epicentre of the outbreak. Three flights a week had been arriving to Heathrow from Wuhan until they were suspended yesterday.
As the World Health Organisation meets today to decide whether to declare a global health emergency, Mr Hancock said the true toll of the virus was likely to be much higher than is confirmed so far. The chief medical officer for England, Chris Whitty, had concluded that there was “an increasing likelihood that cases may arise in this country”, Mr Hancock said.
NHS staff have been instructed on how to stop and isolate cases of the flu-like illness. “We are well-prepared and well equipped to deal with them,” Mr Hancock insisted.
Professor Whitty and Stephen Powis, NHS England’s medical director, wrote to GPs and hospitals today to say it was “essential” to ask people with respiratory infections if they had travelled to Wuhan.
Those who say yes should be isolated from other patients and staff pending tests, GPs are told. Public Health England has developed what Mr Hancock called a “world-leading” test that can identify cases of the Wuhan coronavirus within hours.
Checks on travellers arriving in London direct from Wuhan to London were criticised for not involving temperature readings. However, Mr Hancock said: “Symptoms do not usually appear for five to seven days, sometimes up to 14 days. Therefore the advice is the most important part of the monitoring is to ensure that everybody knows what to do if symptoms arise because often symptoms won’t be there on the flight.”
He also pledged to ensure that information about the virus was available in Chinese after concern that some of those infected may not understand advice given to them. There was no need to wear face masks, Mr Hancock said.
Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first minister, was questioned about the risk to Scots at Holyrood today. She said that the situation was being closely monitored, adding: “The risk to the public here in Scotland — and indeed the UK — is currently classified as low but that is kept under review.”
Chinese scientists say that the virus probably came from a combination of viruses from a bat and a snake that were transmitted to humans, possibly at a food market close to one of Wuhan’s main railway stations.
As well as conventional meat, the market sold live and slaughtered wild animals, including foxes, crocodiles, donkeys, bamboo rats, badgers, hedgehogs, wolf cubs, giant salamanders, snakes, rats, peacocks, porcupines, and camel meat.
The unprecedented lockdown in China came as the Beijing authorities said they had contacted a Chinese woman from Wuhan who had recently flown to France exhibiting symptoms of coronavirus and urged her to go to hospital.
All outbound flights and trains from Wuhan were suspended at 10am and public transport within the city was halted. All residents are required to wear face masks when they go out, and police and troops are guarding the railway station, and entry and exit points to the city.
Local reports said that checkpoints had been set up on the roads, forcibly preventing even private vehicles from leaving the city.
It is the first time in the modern history of epidemics that a government has attempted to isolate an entire city and comes two days before the official beginning of the lunar new year, when hundreds of millions of Chinese people travel across the country and the world.
Wuhan has 60 international air connections, including direct flights to London, New York, Paris, San Francisco and Sydney, as well as more than a hundred domestic destinations.
Chinese state media said that among those suspected of being infected was Wang Guangfa, a doctor who visited Wuhan with a team of experts to investigate the virus.