Is it safe to travel to China? Latest Foreign Office advice during the coronavirus outbreak

The UK Foreign Office has issued new advice for people planning on heading to China since an outbreak of coronavirus killed nine people and affected hundreds of others in the country.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) is expected to declare a Public Health Emergency of International Concern on Wednesday in response to the epidemic. 

Public Health England has now escalated the risk from “very low” to “low”.

The flu-like virus originated in Wuhan City in the Hubai Province, central China, and has started to spread to other areas and countries.

Coronavirus is a rogue strain of a cold-like illness (AP)

Chinese authorities have confirmed the virus is spread via human-to-human transmission.

South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Thailand and the US all now have confirmed cases of coronavirus.​

Screening measures are being put in place in airports to detect anyone suffering from the illness and North Korea has banned foreign tourists from visiting because of the outbreak.

What is coronavirus?

Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses that for the most part do not cause significant clinical illnesses, like the common cold.

However, from time to time a dangerous strain develops such as the Sars or the MERS virus.

Like SARS and MERS, the new rogue coronavirus appears to have originated with animals.

Bats, camels and other animals are carriers of the viruses which mutate and are worse in humans.

Traces of the disease were found at a food market in Wuhan, China, which has been identified at the epicentre of the outbreak.

Officials said it was too early to compare the new virus with SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome), which killed around 800 people between 2002-03, in terms of how lethal it might be.

They attributed the spike in new cases to improvements in detection and monitoring.

It is a respiratory virus and can be transmitted from person to person by inhaling, coughing or sneezing.

Infected people will experience flu-like symptoms to begin with Initial symptoms of the new coronavirus include fever, cough, tightness of the chest runny nose, headache and shortness of breath.

Serious cases can lead to pneumonia, kidney failure and even death.

There is currently no treatment for the new virus.

Is it safe to travel to China?

There have been no cases of the virus in Britain yet. However, the UK is expected to begin monitoring flights arriving from China as part of precautionary measures.

The measures are expected to apply to flights between Wuhan and London Heathrow.

Brits will be wondering how safe it is to travel to the country, especially with Chinese New Year around the corner on Saturday, January 25.

The advice from Public Health England on January 20 is that the current risk to the UK was very low. They have now categorised the risk as “low”.

“We are working with the WHO and other international partners, have issued advice to the NHS and are keeping the situation under constant review,” said Dr Nick Phin, Deputy Director, National Infection Service, PHE.

Masked workers disinfect a passenger thoroughfare at the Taoyuan International Airport (AFP via Getty Images)

People travelling to Wuhan are advised to maintain good hand, respiratory and personal hygiene and should avoid visiting animal and bird markets or people who are ill with respiratory symptoms.

Individuals should seek medical attention if they develop respiratory symptoms within 14 days of visiting Wuhan, either in China or on their return to the UK, informing their health service prior to their attendance about their recent travel to the city.

The government has added information about the virus to its advice on travelling to China.

It advises people to take out comprehensive travel and medical insurance before they travel and advises visiting the TravelHealthPro website to check the advice coming from the destination country.

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps has announced new precautions in relation to travellers to the UK from the region of China at the centre of the coronavirus outbreak.

“There have been some announcements this morning about flights that come direct from the affected region to Heathrow with some additional measures there,” he told Sky News.

“At the moment Public Health England have moved this from ‘very low’ to ‘low’ but obviously we want to stay ahead of the issue so we are keeping a very close eye on it.

“Initially this is to ensure that when flights come in directly into Heathrow there is a separate area for people to arrive in.”

The US Centre for Disease Control and Preventing issued a Watch Level One Alert, which is the lowest of the three travel health notices that warns visitors of Wuhan to “be aware and practice usual precautions”.

Authorities in Thailand – who have four confirmed cases of the virus – say they have the situation “under control”.

What should I do if I’ve already booked flights?

There is no advice against travelling to China, even if you are planning a trip to Wuhan itself.

Therefore, all flights heading to the country should still be due to depart.

There has been no warning against travel (AFP via Getty Images)

Currently, the risk of contracting the virus is low for people from the UK as long as all the precautions regarding hygiene are taken.

However, passengers flying should be aware they may be asked to undertake precautionary measures such as filling out health questionnaires of a temperature check at airports.

The WHO’s emergency declaration just calls for an international response to the epidemic and is not a warning against venturing to the region.

If you decide to cancel your trip, normal policy would apply and it would be best to consult your airline’s website on their cancellation procedure.

If the Foreign Office warns against travel to the region, travellers on package holidays organised by a British firm should be able to cancel without a penalty and receive a full refund.

Airlines are not obliged to refund tickets whatever the Foreign Office advice, but in the past they have offered some flexibility. 

Travel insurance could also be a way of recouping costs, according to the Association of British Insurers.

But, if you were to travel to an area against the advice of the Foreign Office it will invalidate most insurance policies.

If you’re abroad and you need emergency help from the UK government, contact the nearest British embassy, consulate or high commission.

If you need urgent help because something has happened to a friend or relative abroad, contact the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) in London on 020 7008 1500 (24 hours).


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