Britain’s embassy in Beijing has said it is “working to make available an option” for British nationals to leave the Chinese province at the centre of the coronavirus as the UK’s response was contrasted with that of other countries with active evacuation plans.
The announcement on Monday came as the former foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt, backed the idea of airlifts for British citizens in China and Public Health England said the first case of the virus was likely to come from somebody already in the UK.
“Our view is that, although airports are important, the most likely place that we might find a case is somebody in the country already, and it’s absolutely critical that the public health service and the NHS are ready to diagnose that and are able to designate the person to the right facilities,” said Prof Yvonne Doyle, the medical director and director of health protection for PHE.
“That’s the most likely scenario we are dealing with,” she added in an interview with Sky News.
Efforts are continuing to trace the 2,000 people who have entered the UK from China on international flights.
The home secretary, Priti Patel, and the foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, have said ministers are considering an evacuation plan, but both have stopped short of committing to one.
By comparison, the French government has said its citizens who want to leave Wuhan, the city from where the outbreak is believed to have originated, will be taken on a direct flight to France in the middle of this week, then held in quarantine for 14 days.
Japan has chartered evacuation flights to take out 560 Japanese citizens who are confirmed in Hubei and the US consulate in Wuhan is arranging a charter flight on Tuesday to evacuate its personnel and some other Americans.
Asked if he supported flying Britons back from Wuhan, and elsewhere, Hunt told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I think I would be very sympathetic and I’m sure the Foreign Office would be too.”
He added: “This is a very difficult time of year for the NHS – it is the most difficult time. But, again, my experience is that the NHS does know how to cope with these kinds of emergencies.”
“The thing that will be difficult is the knock-on impact on other NHS services,” he said.
“It would be very, very challenging for the NHS in terms of the regular workload but I have absolutely no doubt that, when it comes to doing what is necessary to isolate the virus and keep the public safe, our doctors and nurses will do exactly what they need to do.”
UK in China, the official Twitter account of Britain’s embassy in Beijing, tweeted: “We are working to make available an option for British nationals to leave Hubei province.”
Providing details of a 24-hour helpline British nationals could use if they required assistance, it added it was continuing to monitor developments closely and was in close touch with Chinese authorities.