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Coronavirus: UK to monitor flights from China as precaution

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The UK is to begin monitoring flights arriving from China, as part of a series of precautionary measures after the spread of a new coronavirus.

The measures, to be announced by the health secretary later, will apply to flights from Wuhan to London Heathrow.

Aircraft will land in an isolated part of Terminal 4, before being met by a health team, a government source said.

Public Health England has upgraded the risk from very low to low, the transport secretary said.

Chinese authorities have advised people to stop travel into and out of Wuhan, the city at the heart of the outbreak.

They also admitted the country is now at the “most critical stage” of prevention and control.

There are estimated to have been 4,000 cases of the virus since the outbreak began, according to Professor Neil Ferguson, director of the Medical Research Centre for Global Infectious Disease Analysis.

However he said it was difficult to assess the numbers and Chinese hospitals would probably now be overwhelmed with suspected cases.

There have been 440 confirmed cases, according to official Chinese figures, and nine people have died.

The vast majority of cases have been in Wuhan and Chinese authorities believe the virus originated from a seafood market that “conducted illegal transactions of wild animals”.

However it has also spread to other Chinese cities and a handful of cases have been identified abroad, including in Japan and the US. There have been no cases in Britain.

On Tuesday, authorities in China confirmed for the first time that human-to-human transmission of the virus had taken place.

Health team at airport

In its most recent update on Monday, Public Health England said the risk to the UK population was “very low” while the risk to travellers to Wuhan was “low”.

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps told BBC Radio 5live that Health Secretary Matt Hancock would be announcing a package of precautionary measures later.

“The flights that come in from the affected region will now be given extra attention,” Mr Shapps said.

According to a government source, the “port measures” will include:

  • A health team to meet each direct flight from Wuhan to London Heathrow
  • Passengers on flights will hear an announcement and be given a leaflet to encourage them to report if they are ill
  • Aircraft will land in an isolated area of Heathrow Terminal 4 that “better lends itself to any health contingencies”

There are currently three direct flights a week from Wuhan to London Heathrow.

Mr Shapps said it was important to “stay ahead of the issue” and monitor the situation very carefully.

Professor Calum Semple, an expert in outbreak medicine at Alder Hey Children’s Hospital, said it could be difficult to spot passengers infected with the virus because it takes about five days for symptoms to appear and during this initial period someone could seem completely healthy.

He told the BBC that these symptoms, which include fever, cough, shortness of breath and breathing difficulties, can also be difficult to differentiate from seasonal flu.

It comes as the World Health Organization (WHO) will also consider on Wednesday whether to declare an international public health emergency over the virus – as it did with swine flu and Ebola.

Authorities in several countries, including Australia, Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Japan have stepped up screening of air passengers from Wuhan.

US authorities last week announced similar measures at airports in San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York. They have now announced plans to introduce similar measures at airports in Chicago and Atlanta this week.

What we know so far about the Chinese coronavirus

This type of coronavirus is a new strain that hasn’t been seen in humans before, which means doctors still have lots to learn about it.

The first human cases were identified in the Chinese city of Wuhan in December 2019. There have not been any other suspected human cases reported prior to this.

The incubation period (how long it takes for symptoms to appear after catching the infection) is days, rather than weeks.

It is not yet known how or when the virus became infectious to people. Experts believe the first cases were transmitted by an animal.

Other coronaviruses, such as Sars and Mers, came from civet cats and camels respectively.

At the moment, there is no vaccine that can protect people against it, but researchers are looking to develop one.

The UK’s expected measures do not appear to include a medical screening of passengers at the airport for signs of the virus, as the UK did in 2014 following the Ebola outbreak.

Then, screening involved taking people’s temperatures to check whether they have a fever and asking several questions to assess their risk.

China – which is stepping up containment measures – has still not been able to confirm the exact source of the virus.

But the country’s National Health Commission vice-minister Li Bin said there was evidence that the disease was “mainly transmitted through the respiratory tract”.

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