British officials trying to trace 2,000 Wuhan visitors over coronavirus

  • Video report by ITV News reporter Amy Lea

Health officials are urgently trying to trace 2,000 people who have flown to the UK from the epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak in the past few weeks.

While there is nothing to suggest at this stage they have the respiratory disease, the UK's chief medical officer has said there is a "fair chance" Britain will see cases emerge.

France has said two people have tested positive for the virus - which will be the first confirmed cases in Europe - while in the US, a second case has also been identified.

Cities across China remain on lockdown as the death toll for the new coronavirus outbreak has risen to 41, the country's national health commission has said.

The update also confirmed that there has been the first recorded death outside the province of Hubei, where the virus is believed to have originated. The total number of infected people now stands at more than 1,200 people.

As it stands, 18 cities with a combined total of 56 million people have been placed on lockdown in China.

Meanwhile, tests on 14 people in the UK for the coronavirus have returned negative results, it has been revealed.

Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer, said checks are ongoing on other people, but did not say how many were involved.

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Mr Whitty 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."

He added: "I think we should definitely see this as a marathon, not a sprint we need to have our entire response based on that principle."

Mr Whitty said: "At the minute, it definitely looks like this is a lot less dangerous if you get it than Ebola, and a lot less dangerous than the recent coronavirus MERS, and it's probably less dangerous if you get it than SARS virus.

"What we don't know is how far it's going to spread, that really is something we need to plan for all eventualities."

The Government's Cobra committee has met to discuss the threat to the UK posed by coronavirus.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock, who chaired the meeting, said the risk to the UK "remains low" as he left the Cabinet Office.

He said: "As I made clear to the House yesterday, the clinical advice is that the risk to the public remains low and the chief medical officer will be making a full statement later today."

Professor Paul Cosford, emeritus medical director at Public Health England, said it is still "early days" in the course of the virus, but stressed that most of those affected abroad are making a good recovery.

But he said it was “highly likely” that cases would be seen in the UK.

Screening is carried out at a train station in Beijing. Credit: AP

The Scottish government confirmed on Thursday that five people who travelled from Wuhan - the Chinese city where the virus is thought to have originated - were showing symptoms of respiratory problems, a key indicator of the virus, were being tested.

Meanwhile, a patient was confirmed as being tested to rule out coronavirus at Belfast's Royal Victoria Hospital.

So far, 26 people have died and there have been 870 cases confirmed.

Cases have been reported in the US, Japan, South Korea, Thailand, Singapore and Hong Kong.

People in China wear face masks while waiting for a train in Beijing. Credit: AP

The suspected cases across the UK come after infections expert Professor Jurgen Haas Prof Haas, head of infection medicine at the University of Edinburgh, said he believes there will probably be similar cases in "many other cities" in the UK.

"The situation will be pretty similar in pretty much all UK cities with a large number of Chinese students," he said.

"It's not too surprising. My suspicion is that there will probably be many more cases in many other cities in the UK.

Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said the situation was being closely monitored, adding: "I should say, that the risk to the public here in Scotland - and indeed the UK - is currently classified as low but that is kept under review."

Health Secretary Matt Hancock delivered a statement to the House of Commons, saying the UK was "well prepared" to deal with the threat of the new deadly disease.

Wuhan, a city with a population of 11 million people, is thought to be the epicentre of the outbreak in China and is one of the many cities which has restricted plane, train and bus travel.

Restrictions have come at a busy time of year for China as people typically move around to celebrate the Luna New Year.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock said the UK was 'well prepared' to deal with the coronavirus.

The open-ended lockdowns are unmatched in size, embracing more people than New York City, Los Angeles and Chicago put together.

The train station and airport in Wuhan were shut down, with ferry, subway and bus services also halted.

Normally bustling streets, shopping malls, restaurants and other public spaces in the city were eerily quiet.

In the capital, Beijing, officials cancelled major events indefinitely, including traditional temple fairs that are a staple of holiday celebrations, to help control the spread of the virus.

Many countries have begun screening travellers from China for symptoms of the virus, which can cause fever, coughing, breathing difficulties and pneumonia.

Meanwhile, the World Health Organisation on Thursday decided against declaring the outbreak a global emergency for now.

Such a declaration can bring more money and other resources to fight a threat but can also trigger economically damaging restrictions on trade and travel in the affected countries, making the decision politically fraught.

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The decision “should not be taken as a sign that WHO does not think the situation is serious or that we’re not taking it seriously. Nothing could be further from the truth,” WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said.

“WHO is following this outbreak every minute of every day.”

Jonathan Ball, a professor of virology at molecular virology at the University of Nottingham in Britain, said the lockdowns appear to be justified scientifically.

“Until there’s a better understanding of what the situation is, I think it’s not an unreasonable thing to do,” he said. “Anything that limits people’s travels during an outbreak would obviously work.”

In China, the illnesses from the newly identified coronavirus first appeared last month in Wuhan, an industrial and transportation hub.

Local authorities in Wuhan demanded all residents wear masks in public places. Police, SWAT teams and paramilitary troops guarded Wuhan’s train station.

The sharp rise in illnesses comes as millions of Chinese travel for the Lunar New Year, the world’s largest annual migration of people. Chinese residents are expected to take an estimated three billion trips during the 40-day spike in travel.