A DESPERATE hunt was under way last night for 2,000 recent arrivals in the UK from China after at least nine people were tested for killer coronavirus.
They all arrived in Britain within the past two weeks from Wuhan, the centre of the deadly outbreak.
But experts say it is now too late to contain the bug, warning it may already be on our shores.
The warning comes as nine unidentified patients faced a worrying overnight wait for their results.
Six of the potential victims are being held in isolation at Scottish and Northern Irish hospitals.
A further three — believed to be from England or Wales — are also being tested after feeling unwell.
Officials claim a further five people have been checked out and given the all-clear.
The deadly coronavirus has continued its relentless global march, with the number of nations affected almost doubling overnight.
Vietnam, Singapore, Saudi Arabia and Hong Kong all now have confirmed cases — alongside the US, China, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Thailand.
But the World Health Organisation last night refused to declare a global public health emergency, saying it was “too early”.
However, officials admitted the committee was split almost 50-50.
Four major Chinese cities are in lockdown with 20million people in quarantine, with evidence of human to human transmission.
Officials have restricted travel in Wuhan, which is home to 11million, as well as neighbouring Huanggang, Ezhou and Lichuan.
Hospitals warned they could not cope with the number of patients turning up with symptoms.
Preliminary research suggested the coronavirus was passed on to humans from snakes at Wuhan’s seafood market.
It has now killed 18 people, with 650 thought to have been infected in ten countries.
Michael Ryan, head of WHO’s emergencies programme, said almost three-quarters of confirmed cases were in people aged over 40, with four in ten having underlying health conditions.
Experts have warned it may prove as deadly as the Spanish flu, which claimed 50million lives.
There are fears that it could accelerate further with millions travelling for Chinese New Year celebrations tomorrow.
Britain is now ramping up preparations against the epidemic, with Health Secretary Matt Hancock warning there will likely be cases in the upcoming days.
Mr Hancock said the UK is “well prepared” to deal with the virus.
He told the Commons: “This is a rapidly developing situation and the numbers of cases and deaths is likely to be higher than those that have been confirmed so far. We expect them to rise further.
“The Chief Medical Officer has revised the risk to the UK population from ‘very low’ to ‘low’ — and has concluded that there is an increased likelihood that cases may arise in this country.”
The NHS 111 helpline has a message encouraging callers to report any flu-like symptoms if they have recently travelled to China.
Experts claim the five potential cases in Scotland and one in Belfast may be the tip of the iceberg.
Professor Jurgen Haas, head of infection medicine at Edinburgh University, said he expected more.
He added: “The situation will be pretty similar in pretty much all UK cities with a large number of Chinese students.
TIP OF THE ICEBERG
“It’s not too surprising. My suspicion is that there will probably be many more cases in many other cities in the UK.”
A Scottish Government spokesman confirmed tests had been carried out and said: “Following travel to Wuhan, China, two people confirmed as diagnosed with influenza are now being tested for coronavirus as a precautionary measure only.
Three further people are also undergoing testing on a similar precautionary basis.”
Elsewhere, two police stations were temporarily closed amid fears that a Chinese detainee was displaying flu-like symptoms.
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Avon and Somerset Police said the decision to close Patchway police station, near Bristol, and Trinity Road police station in Bristol city centre on Wednesday night was taken as a precaution.
The force said a detainee had fallen ill and there were fears they may have had contact with people who had travelled from Wuhan.
But it quickly emerged the person did not have the virus.
Students in trips alert
By Nick McDermott, Health Editor
CHINESE students in the UK face being quarantined if they have flown home to mark their New Year.
At least a dozen universities in England and Scotland have ties with Wuhan.
Five Aberdeen staff who flew there are back at work. One is working from home as a precaution.
Chester said students would not be let back without an all-clear.
Newcastle advised 300 students with links to Hubei province.
Glasgow and Dundee also gave guidance.