The UK is facing its first significant test of how to contain a potential coronavirus outbreak after the government confirmed a 20th victim of Covid-19 and details of its contingency planning for an upsurge in cases began to emerge.

The chief medical officer, Prof Chris Whitty, said the further patient in England had been infected in the UK, but it was unclear whether they contracted it directly or indirectly from someone who had recently returned from abroad.

“This is being investigated and contact tracing has begun. The patient has been transferred to a specialist NHS infection centre at Guy’s and St Thomas’ [hospital].”

As part of the official action plan being drawn up by ministers and Whitty, military medics and British Red Cross and St John Ambulance personnel will be drafted in to help the NHS cope with a major outbreak.

Under ministerial planning for a “reasonable worst-case scenario” of a potential pandemic, doctors and nurses working for the armed forces would help at hospitals where staff who have the virus are too ill to work or are self-isolating at home.

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The Guardian has also been told a doctor from Surrey was transported to a specialist centre on Friday because of fears he might have also succumbed to the virus.

If confirmed, this would prompt particular concerns – the GP would routinely have seen scores of patients over the course of the last week.

The developments came amid mounting alarm about the spread of the disease prompting havoc on the financial markets and growing doubts about the future major events including the Olympics.

  • A British man became the first UK citizen to die from the virus after being infected on the Diamond Princess cruise ship in Japan. He was the sixth passenger from the ship to die, Japan’s health ministry said.

  • Stock market losses linked to the spread of the diseased smashed through $5tn (£3.92tn) as the Dow Jones plunged by 1,000 points.

  • The Bank of England governor, Mark Carney, warned that the expected global slowdown due to the coronavirus fears will have a knock on impact on the UK. Boris Johnson has said he would convene a Cobra meeting on Monday.

  • EasyJet and IAG, the owner of British Airways, both reported significant drops in demand and plans to cancelling flights.

  • The Geneva motor show was cancelled after Switzerland banned all gatherings of more than 1,000 people.

  • The International Olympic Committee member Dick Pound said a final decision on whether the Japan Olympics will go ahead in July could be made as late as May.

  • The World Health Organization said the risk of spread and impact of the virus is now “very high” after the Nigeria reported the case of the disease in sub-Saharan Africa.

Dr Mike Ryan, executive director of WHO’s emergencies programme, said: “We are on the highest level of alert and highest level in terms of spread and of impact. But that is not in order to alarm or scare people.”

The number of UK cases increased by three, including the first confirmed positive test in Wales in a woman from Swansea. She had visited northern Italy, Europe’s worst-hit area, where there have been 17 deaths and 650 confirmed cases.

Public Health Wales said medics were trying to trace people who had been in close contact with a woman.

The World Health Organization is recommending that people take simple precautions to reduce exposure to and transmission of the Wuhan coronavirus, for which there is no specific cure or vaccine.

The UN agency advises people to:

  • Frequently wash their hands with an alcohol-based hand rub or warm water and soap
  • Cover their mouth and nose with a flexed elbow or tissue when sneezing or coughing
  • Avoid close contact with anyone who has a fever or cough
  • Seek early medical help if they have a fever, cough and difficulty breathing, and share their travel history with healthcare providers
  • Avoid direct, unprotected contact with live animals and surfaces in contact with animals when visiting live markets in affected areas
  • Avoid eating raw or undercooked animal products and exercise care when handling raw meat, milk or animal organs to avoid cross-contamination with uncooked foods.

Despite a surge in sales of face masks in the aftermath of the outbreak of the coronavirus outbreak, experts are divided over whether they can prevent transmission and infection. There is some evidence to suggest that masks can help prevent hand-to-mouth transmissions, given the large number of times people touch their faces. The consensus appears to be that wearing a mask can limit – but not eliminate – the risks, provided they are used correctly.

Justin McCurry

Two new patients in England caught the virus in Iran and are being treated at a specialist unit at the Royal Free hospital in London, said Whitty.

On Thursday Whitty said sports events and concerts may have to be cancelled and schools closed for more than two months if the UK is hit by a global pandemic.

The exams regulator Ofqual is considering “contingency plans” over this summer’s exams in case of widespread outbreak.


In Surrey, health chiefs are also worried by the unnamed doctor’s diagnosis because his wife is also a GP. Public Health England is “contact tracing” everyone with whom either of the couple has been in contact – including all patients they have seen – so they can also be tested for evidence of the virus.

It is not yet known if his wife has also contracted the virus. Officials looking into the GP’s case have not yet established how he might have caught the virus but he has not recently visited any of the places abroad where there have been recent outbreaks, such as northern Italy, Tenerife, Iran and China.

Simon Lewis, the British Red Cross’s head of crisis response, confirmed that it had held talks with the government and NHS and local council chiefs about what role it would play.

“We have already provided some assistance around isolation units at Arrowe Park hospital [in Wirral, where people have been quarantined after returning to the UK] and Heathrow airport and we are talking to partners about any additional support we might be able to offer in the days and weeks ahead,” Lewis said.



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