Government calls Cobra meeting on coronavirus after health watchdog says it is 'highly likely' in UK

Sarah Knapton

The Government's Cobra contingencies committee has met to discuss the outbreak of coronavirus after the medical director for Public Health England said it was ‘highly likely’ to come to Britain.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock has said the risk to the UK public from the coronavirus "remains low" after chairing the meeting.

Exiting the Cabinet Office, Mr Hancock said: "We have just held a Cobra meeting on the coronavirus concerns.

"As I made clear to the House yesterday, the clinical advice is that the risk to the public remains low and the chief medical officer will be making a full statement later today."

He did not answer any questions before entering his ministerial car.

Dr Paul Cosford, who is also Director of Health Protection, said that five suspected cases had now been cleared, but several suspected cases are still ongoing with results expected today.

The number of cases has jumped to 830 and the death toll has risen to at least 26, with two fatalities now reported outside of Wuhan and 12 cases confirmed globally. 

A No 10 spokesman said there were still no confirmed cases in to UK.

Speaking to Radio 4’s Today programme, Dr Cosford said that it was now ‘highly likely’ that the infection would spread to Britain.

“There are no positive cases in the UK as yet, but we will go on testing and those numbers will of course change,” he said.

“I think it's highly likely that we will have cases in the UK, and of course every so often we do get new infections coming from the animal kingdom such as this one.

“We do have a whole range of plans ready to go when that is the case and, and these are being implemented now so our systems are ready to diagnose somebody if they do come to the UK and have this infection, and of course the NHS is prepared to treat people, if they have this infection.”

Dr Cosford said anyone returning from China who experienced symptoms should avoid ‘pitching up’ at hospitals or their GP, and instead contact NHS 111.

But he said that the majority of people would probably recover if they contracted the virus.

“Coronavirus is a very broad Church of viruses, from the common cold on one hand two sides on the other,” he added.

“The people who have died are large the older people with other illnesses that they've got. And as I say that the majority of people. It does look as if they’re making a full recovery.”

Sir Jeremy Farrar, of the Wellcome Trust, said: “I am alarmed, but there is a big difference between that and panic. If this does take off like in China the pressure on the NHS will be very difficult.”

Private schools may need to make plans for overseas pupils 

Private schools may need to make plans for overseas pupils who are unable or unwilling to return home for upcoming holidays due to the coronavirus outbreak, it has been suggested.

While there is "no immediate cause for concern" the situation needs to be closely monitored, independent school groups have said.

Schools should "err on the side of caution" to minimise risks to staff and students, according to guidance issued by the Girls' Schools Association (GSA).

China sends more pupils to UK fee-paying schools than any other country.

Latest figures show that Chinese children made up around one in six of all international students at these schools.

In a statement, the GSA, which represents a group of fee-paying girls' schools, said it is "drawing schools' attention to the advice given by Public Health England concerning the corona virus and travel to China".

A spokesman said: "Whilst there seems to be no immediate cause for concern, the issue for schools is, of course, two-way travel.

"We are monitoring the situation carefully and are advising schools to consider planning for the eventuality that some pupils may not be able to travel home, or may choose not to travel home, for the half term or Easter holidays.

"We advise schools to err on the side of caution to minimise the risk to students and staff and any school requiring case-specific information is being advised to contact Public Health England/Scotland/Wales, the Public Health Agency or their relevant local specialist service."

Similar guidance has been issued by the Boarding Schools Association (BSA).

BSA chief executive Robin Fletcher said: "It is clearly very early days, and therefore difficult to predict how things will progress."

The issue for schools, he said will be "travel both to and from China, and possibly elsewhere in South-East Asia as matters progress."

A spokesman for the Girls' Day School Trust said: "We are keeping a close eye on the situation and will provide care and support for students if it is needed."

Figures from the Independent Schools Council (ISC) show that as of January last year, there were 9,585 pupils from mainland China at its member schools, out of a total of 55,280 international students.

GPs told to isolate patients with symptoms 

GPs have been told to isolate anyone with symptoms that could indicate coronavirus who have recently travelled from Wuhan in China.

Guidance from Public Health England said doctors should check the travel history of patients.

If they suspect a patient has coronavirus, they should be placed in a room away from other patients and staff with the door closed.

They should not be allowed to use communal toilet facilities or be physically examined, the guidance adds.

A letter from the chief medical officer to clinical staff warns that the "mass movement" of people within and outside China associated with the upcoming Chinese new year celebrations may "amplify transmission".

The letter said that anyone who is confirmed as having the virus will be transferred to a Airborne High Consequences Infectious Disease centre (HCID).

According to Public Health England, there are four interim Airborne HCID centres in England.

These are Guy's and St Thomas' NHS Foundation Trust, Royal Free London NHS Foundation Trust, Royal Liverpool and Broadgreen University Hospitals NHS Trust and Newcastle upon Tyne Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust.

The race for a vaccine 

A vaccine could be a year away, leading scientists have said. 

Dr Richard Hatchett CEO of CEPI has said that even with “very aggressive, very rapid clinical trials” they are still looking at “a year at a minimum” before the vaccines could be ready.

He told the Today Programme on Friday morning: “We have very ambitious timelines. 

“We are hoping that the vaccines that we announced the partnerships for yesterday could be potentially entering clinical trials sometime in the summer. 

Dr Paul Stoffels, M.D. Chief Scientific Officer at Johnson & Johnson added that companies have started the “basic work” into a vaccine but it will take “several months” before it can go for clinical trials. 

“The lab technicians and scientists have told me today that they have already advanced the first version of a vaccine into the laboratories. 

“That will take several months before it will be able to be tested in the clinic.”  

But Dr Hatchett said that the timeline for a vaccine for coronavirus represented “tremendous progress” since the Ebola vaccines, which he said had been under development for about a decade or more. 

Dr Stoffels agreed and said that Ebola was a “wake up call to the world” and that there are now systems in place “to work so much faster”. 

The Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), partially financed by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, announced yesterday that they will fund three programmes with the aim being to advance nCoV-2019 vaccine candidates into clinical testing as quickly as possible.

CEPI aims to develop vaccines for new and emerging diseases before they become global health emergencies.

It said it has moved with great urgency to promote the development of new vaccines against the emerging threat of nCoV-2019, adding that the novel coronavirus represents the first new epidemic disease of note to emerge since CEPI's founding at Davos in 2017.

Meanwhile, Dr Jeremy Farrar, director of Wellcome, said: "This outbreak and the speed with which this new virus has spread in China and travelled across borders, is a reminder of how vulnerable we are globally to outbreaks of infectious diseases known and unknown.

"Travel restrictions may be important in buying time, to signal the seriousness of the situation and may help reduce the impact, but are unlikely stop this epidemic.

"Accelerating research as well as the public health response is key to bringing this under control. We still don't fully understand how this virus is passing person to person, how and when people are infectious, the full range of clinical symptoms, or know the animal source. We don't have proven treatments or vaccines.

"This virus has crossed from animals into people. That does not happen often, and it is without doubt, very serious.

"People are scarred by the memory of SARS, and a global outbreak of a novel respiratory virus like this, is something experts have warned about for many years.

"But we have also made important progress on epidemic preparedness. In the wake of the West African Ebola crisis, CEPI (the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations) was founded.

"Today CEPI launched three programmes to speed vaccine research for this new coronavirus, and in China treatments are being tried and the information shared."

CEPI is a partnership between public, private, philanthropic and civil organisations, and its priority diseases include Ebola virus, Lassa virus, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus, Nipah virus, Rift Valley Fever and Chikungunya virus.

The coalition has reached more than 750 million US dollars of its one billion dollar funding target, and to date it has committed to investing more than 456 million dollars in vaccine and platform development.

Travel advice updated

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office has updated its travel advice for China, with a spokesman saying: "In light of the latest medical information, including reports of some person-to-person transmission, and the Chinese authorities' own advice, we are now advising against all but essential travel to Wuhan.

"The safety and security of British nationals is always our primary concern and we advise British nationals travelling to China to remain vigilant and check our travel advice on gov.uk."

Professor Neil Ferguson, director of the Medical Research Centre for Global Infectious Disease Analysis, said the estimated number of people infected with coronavirus in Wuhan is around 4,000, with a range between 1,000 and 9,700.

Asked whether it is possible the virus has already reached the UK, Prof Ferguson said he could not rule it out. Other experts said it was likely that cases would be seen in Britain.

Dr Andrew Freedman, Reader in Infectious Diseases at Cardiff University, said: "It is likely that further cases will be seen in other countries around the world, including the UK and Europe, in the days & weeks to come. "

Explaining why there is global concern about the virus, Dr Josie Golding of the Wellcome Trust said it is because so little is known about it and vital information is "missing", like how easily it can be transmitted and where it is coming from.