Two members of the same family are being treated for the new coronavirus at a specialist unit in Newcastle, the first confirmed cases in the UK, the government has confirmed.
Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer for England, said the government was “confident” of its ability to manage the patients in the National Health Service and said the UK had “very strong public health services” which could contain the spread of the virus.
“We are already working rapidly to identify any contacts the patients had, to prevent further spread,” he said. “We have been preparing for UK cases of novel coronavirus and we have robust infection control measures in place to respond immediately.
“All developed health services that have had cases have managed to prevent and avoid transmission.”
The government is advising anyone who has been to the Chinese province of Wuhan, where the outbreak started, to self-isolate for 14 days regardless of whether they have symptoms. Anyone returning from elsewhere in China should self-isolate if they experience symptoms, however minor.
The two confirmed cases were confirmed and transferred to a specialist unit overnight. According to Public Health England, there are two principal high consequence infections disease centres in England — at the Royal Free Hospital in London and the Royal Victoria Infirmary in Newcastle.
Prof Whitty gave no details about the two patients, including their current condition or where they were taken to Newcastle from. However, government officials believe the patients had recently travelled to China.
It is not known how many people those infected with the virus have been in contact with. Sharon Peacock, national infection service director at Public Health England said an outbreak investigation team had been deployed immediately to identify those who had been involved in the cases.
The mortality rate of the virus is estimated at about 2 per cent, compared with 20-30 per cent for the Mers virus, which emerged in 2012, and 10 per cent for Sars, which emerged in 2004.
There have so far been 9,692 reported cases in China and 213 deaths, Beijing confirmed. There has been no sustained transmission of the virus or deaths outside China.
Prof Whitty said the UK government had increased its threat level for coronavirus from low to moderate as a result of the global situation and that the change had “nothing to do with increased cases coming in” to the UK.
A government-chartered aeroplane carrying 83 British citizens from Wuhan was due to land at RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire on Friday afternoon. The passengers will be quarantined for two weeks at a medical facility at Arroew Park hospital on the Wirral, Merseyside.
Angela Eagle, the Labour MP for Wallasey, a Wirral constituency, said locals were “understandably very concerned about the news that British citizens travelling back from China will be quarantined in an accommodation block at Arrowe Park hospital”.
“We have already received lots of emails from our constituents about this,” she said. “People are concerned about family members and friends who work at Arrowe Park hospital and about patients who are being treated there. It is also a difficult time for hospital staff, with those who live at the accommodation reportedly being told to leave at very short notice.”
A Downing Street spokesman said: “We will work with international partners on further assistance for those who remain in (China’s) Hubei province. We are confident we have the resources in place to return any British nationals who need assistance.”
The World Health Organization on Thursday declared an international emergency over the epidemic because of the “potential for the virus to spread to countries with weaker health systems, and which are ill-prepared to deal with it”, according to Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO director-general.
At present, the transmission rate for the coronavirus outbreak is 2.5-3, meaning each infected person on average passes the disease to 2.5-3 people. Chinese authorities are working to reduce the transmission rate to 1, at which point the epidemic will have peaked.
Experts in infectious diseases played down fears that the two UK cases presaged a devastating outbreak in the UK.
Tom Solomon, director of the NIHR Health Protection Research Unit in Emerging and Zoonotic Infections at Liverpool university, said: “It will be important to know whether both of these patients recently returned from an affected country, or whether one of them returned with the virus and has subsequently infected a family member.”
He highlighted the UK’s past experience of containing the spread of highly infectious and dangerous respiratory pathogens, including most recently the Mers coronavirus. “So all the systems are in place to stop this becoming an outbreak in the UK,” he added.
Prof Whitty said it would become clear “in the next few weeks” if the outbreak in China would be brought under control, during which time the government would be focused on treating and limiting the spread of a small number of cases of the virus in the UK.
If the rate of transmission does not fall within China, however, the virus would be likely to spread globally, presenting a greater risk. Prof Whitty said the UK had “established systems” and was “well prepared” for either circumstance.