Coronavirus: Britain under pressure to evacuate UK nationals

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.

Coronavirus map
Coronavirus map

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.

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What is the virus causing illness in Wuhan?

It is a member of the coronavirus family that has never been encountered before. Like other coronaviruses, it has come from animals, or possibly seafood. New and troubling viruses usually originate in animal hosts. Ebola and flu are examples.

What other coronaviruses have there been?

Severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) and Middle Eastern respiratory syndrome (Mers) are both caused by coronaviruses that came from animals.

What are the symptoms of the Wuhan coronavirus?

The virus causes pneumonia. Those who have fallen ill are reported to suffer coughs, fever and breathing difficulties. In severe cases there can be organ failure. As this is viral pneumonia, antibiotics are of no use. The antiviral drugs we have against flu will not work. If people are admitted to hospital, they may get support for their lungs and other organs as well as fluids. Recovery will depend on the strength of their immune system. Many of those who have died are known to have been already in poor health.

Is the virus being transmitted from one person to another?

In the past week, the number of confirmed infections has more than tripled and cases have been found in 13 provinces, as well as the municipalities Beijing, Shanghai, Chongqing and Tianjin. The virus has also been confirmed outside China, in Hong Kong, Macau, Japan, Nepal, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, the US, and Vietnam. There have not been any confirmed cases in the UK at present, with the 14 people tested for the virus all proving negative. The actual number to have contracted the virus could be far higher as people with mild symptoms may not have been detected. 

How worried are the experts?

There were fears that the coronavirus might spread more widely during the week-long lunar new year holidays, which start on 24 January, when millions of Chinese travel home to celebrate, but the festivities have largely been cancelled and Wuhan and other Chinese cities are in lockdown.

At what point should you go to the doctor if you have a cough, say?

Unless you have recently travelled to China or been in contact with someone infected with the virus, then you should treat any cough or cold symptoms as normal. The NHS advises that there is generally no need to visit a doctor for a cough unless it is persistent or you are having other symptoms such as chest pain, difficulty breathing or you feel very unwell.

Should we panic?

No. The spread of the virus outside China is worrying but not an unexpected development. It increases the likelihood that the World Health Organization will declare the outbreak to be a public health emergency of international concern on Thursday evening. The key concerns are how transmissible this new coronavirus is between people and what proportion become severely ill and end up in hospital.

Sarah Boseley Health editor and Hannah Devlin 

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.

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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.”

The World Health Organisation 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 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

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.”

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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.

UK in China ??

We are working to make available an option for British nationals to leave Hubei province. If you are a British national in Hubei Province and require assistance, please contact:
our 24/7 number +86 (0) 10 8529 6600
or the FCO (+44) (0)207 008 1500

January 27, 2020


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