Coronavirus: UK declares outbreak 'serious threat' to health

The UK government has declared the coronavirus outbreak a serious and imminent threat to public health, a step that gives authorities additional powers to fight the spread of the disease.

The health secretary, Matt Hancock, said on Monday: “The incidence or transmission of novel coronavirus constitutes a serious and imminent threat to public health.”

Arrowe Park hospital in Wirral and Kents Hill Park conference centre in Milton Keynes have been designated official “isolation” facilities and Wuhan and Hubei province in China as an “infected area”.

The World Health Organization is recommending that people take simple precautions to reduce exposure to and transmission of the Wuhan coronavirus, for which there is no specific cure or vaccine.

The UN agency advises people to:

  • Frequently wash their hands with an alcohol-based hand rub or warm water and soap
  • Cover their mouth and nose with a flexed elbow or tissue when sneezing or coughing
  • Avoid close contact with anyone who has a fever or cough
  • Seek early medical help if they have a fever, cough and difficulty breathing, and share their travel history with healthcare providers
  • Avoid direct, unprotected contact with live animals and surfaces in contact with animals when visiting live markets in affected areas
  • Avoid eating raw or undercooked animal products and exercise care when handling raw meat, milk or animal organs to avoid cross-contamination with uncooked foods.

Despite a surge in sales of face masks in the aftermath of the outbreak of the coronavirus outbreak, experts are divided over whether they can prevent transmission and infection. There is some evidence to suggest that masks can help prevent hand-to-mouth transmissions, given the large number of times people touch their faces. The consensus appears to be that wearing a mask can limit – but not eliminate – the risks, provided they are used correctly.

Justin McCurry

Under the measures announced on Monday, the Department of Health said people with coronavirus could now be forcibly quarantined and would not be free to leave, and could be forcibly sent into isolation if they posed a threat to public health.

A spokesman said: “Our infection control procedures are world leading and the NHS is well prepared to deal with novel coronavirus.

“We are strengthening our regulations so we can keep individuals in supported isolation for their own safety and if public health professionals consider they may be at risk of spreading the virus to other members of the public.

“This measure will rightly make it easier for health professionals to help keep people safe across the country.”

The new designation by the Department of Health follows reports that a British man who caught coronavirus at a business conference in Singapore is linked to at least seven other confirmed cases in England, France and Spain.

The middle-aged man visited a ski chalet in the Alpine resort area near Mont Blanc before returning to the UK on an easyJet flight to Gatwick airport from Geneva on 28 January.

He was diagnosed with the virus in Brighton and was transferred on Thursday to St Thomas’s hospital in London, where there is an infectious diseases unit.

Following the confirmation of the fourth UK case on Sunday, Prof Paul Hunter, professor in medicine, University of East Anglia, said: “From today’s reports, this new case would appear to be linked to the cluster of cases in the French ski resort, which is also linked to the case in Brighton.

“As such, this case is part of the same cluster which is being reported as linked to a British national returning from Singapore.

“Whilst we currently do not know many details about how this new case was linked to others in the cluster, his/her identification does not at this stage indicate wider spread within the UK community.

“If the new individual had been already identified through contact tracing and the person was self-isolating then this should not pose any additional risk.”

As of 2pm on Sunday, the Department of Health said 795 tests had been concluded in the UK, with four testing positive and 791 confirmed negative. British nationals who have been flown back from Wuhan were being quarantined for 14 days.

The second and final flight carrying British citizens from the coronavirus-hit Chinese city of Wuhan landed at RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire shortly before 7.30am on Sunday.

The foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, said the flight had brought back 105 British nationals and family members, as well as 95 foreign nationals and family members. Thirteen staff and medical professionals were also onboard. The passengers were taken to the Kents Hill Park hotel and conference centre in Milton Keynes to be quarantined.

The death toll in China from the coronavirus stands at more than 900, surpassing the number of fatalities from the Sars virus in the 2002-03 outbreak.

China’s foreign ministry said 27 foreigners in the country had been confirmed infected with the new coronavirus as of Monday morning, two of whom had died. An American died on 6 February and a Japanese man died on 8 February, a foreign ministry spokesman told a daily news briefing in Beijing.


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