UK hospitals told to prepare 'emergency assessment pods' to isolate coronavirus patients

Hospitals across the UK have been told to create "priority assessment pods" to isolate people suspected of carrying coronavirus from other patients.

A letter from Professor Keith Willett, NHS strategic incident director for coronavirus, said the plans were necessary to avoid a "surge in emergency departments."

Patients who think they may have coronavirus symptoms would be directed away from A&E and towards one of the pods, where they could contact specialists on a dedicated phone line.

"Anyone with a cough, fever, or shortness of breath who attends hospital and has recently returned from China, will be advised to follow signs to NHS 111 pods and call for advice," a NHS spokesperson said.

The NHS hopes to have the pods up and running by Friday.

Suspected coronavirus patients would be directed away from A&E and towards the pods. Credit: PA

The letter comes as Health Secretary Matt Hancock defended the government's decision to urge all Britons in China to return home after the move faced criticism from the World Health Organisation (WHO).

On Tuesday, British nationals in the coronavirus-hit country were advised to"leave if they can" by the UK authorities.

Mr Hancock defended the guidance, despite criticism from the WHO, and said the government has not ruled out the possibility of the UK closing its borders to people returning from China in a bid to stop the coronavirus from spreading.

Speaking to ITV News, Mr Hancock defended the advice issued to the estimated 30,000 Britons in China, saying it followed a "science-led approach".

Mr Hancock chaired a Cobra meeting with other government officials on Wednesday to discuss the threat of coronavirus.

Meanwhile the WHO called for calm, stressing it is still early in the outbreak, Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom said a "blanket approach may not help".

A pharmacist wears protective clothing in Wuhan, the epicentre of the virus. Credit: AP

While the Health Secretary defended guidance given to British nationals living in China, the NHS in the UK has been given further information on what to expect in the coming weeks.

A letter from the NHS strategic incident director for coronavirus revealed UK hospitals have been told to create "priority assessment pods" for people with the suspected virus.

In the letter revealed by The Independent, Professor Keith Willett said plans were needed to avoid a "surge in emergency departments due to coronavirus".

Patients who think they have symptoms will be directed to a pod away from A&E, from where they can call specialist NHS 111 teams on a dedicated phone - isolating the potential spread.

There are currently two confirmed cases of coronavirus in the UK - both remain in quarantine in a specialist unit in Newcastle.

NHS staff have undergone medical training exercises in preparation for outbreaks like the coronavirus. Credit: PA

After being forced to defend the government's advice to Britons in China, Mr Hancock was asked if the move was a precursor to the UK closing its borders to people from China - whether Chinese citizens or Britons returning from China.

He said: "We haven't made that decision yet. We keep all these decisions under review and we will do everything we can to protect the public.

"It's a very serious epidemic in China, it spreads fast and while there have only been two cases in the UK, we expect more."

A temporary hospital has been set up in the Hongshan Gymnasium in Wuhan, Hubei province. Credit: AP

The Health Secretary added: "We are trying to base all of these decisions on the best science and making sure we take no chances with this virus.

"In China, this is clearly a growing fast. We reckon that the number of cases is doubling every five days and while the number of cases outside Wuhan is much lower than in Wuhan, which is the epicentre, it is clearly growing."

  • ITV News Asia Correspondent Debi Edward reports on the situation in China:

Critics have said the UK's decision to urge Britons to return home could risk causing more panic than necessary, as the mortality rate of those with the disease is estimated to be around two per cent.

In contrast, seasonal flu is known to kill tens of thousands of people across the world each year, while the death toll related to coronavirus remains relatively small at less than 700.

On Tuesday evening, eight British nationals and their dependants left the virus-hit city of Wuhan on a flight to Auckland, New Zealand.

It was announced late on Tuesday that the UK Government will charter a final flight from China to bring British nationals back to the UK this week.

The plane is expected to leave in the early hours of Sunday local time and will land at RAF Brize Norton, the Foreign Office said, adding that officials want to ensure that all British nationals in Hubei province contact their team to register if they want to leave on the flight.

The PA news agency understands that 165 Britons and their dependants remain in Hubei province, the epicentre of the outbreak, while 108 people have requested assistance to leave as of the early hours of Wednesday.

Britons repatriated from Wuhan were taken by coach to a quarantine facility in Merseyside. Credit: PA

A total of 94 UK nationals and family members have already been evacuated to Britain from Wuhan on two flights which arrived on Friday and Sunday.

In Japan nearly 3,000 passengers, including two Britons, were quarantined on board a cruise ship after 10 passengers tested positive for coronavirus on Wednesday morning local time.

Among those stuck on the Diamond Princess cruise ship Yokohama Bay, near Tokyo, are David and Sally Abel.

The World Health Organisation said it is still early in the outbreak, but coronavirus does not yet constitute a pandemic. Credit: PA

British health officials are trying to trace 239 people who flew from Wuhan to the UK before travel restrictions came into force. The Department of Health said that, as of Tuesday, 414 people have tested negative for coronavirus.

In China the death toll from the outbreak continues to rise with authorities reporting 490 victims and an increase in the number of cases to 24,324.