The deadly coronavirus is likely already in Britain, a top health chief has warned.
Public Health England medical director Dr Yvonne Doyle told Sky News she suspects there are already cases of coronavirus in the UK.
She says the country is “well-prepared” to handle cases here, and former foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt has suggested airlifts for UK citizens trapped in Wuhan, the Chinese city where the outbreak began late last month.
No confirmed cases have been detected in the UK yet amid an outbreak in China that has killed at least 81 people and infected thousands of others.
More than 50 people have now been tested for coronavirus in the UK, according to the Department of Health (DoH), although all tests have returned negative.
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As of Sunday afternoon, some 52 people across England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have been tested for the deadly flu-like virus.
The current risk to the public remains low, the department said, adding that the Government is continuing to monitor the situation closely.
Earlier, England’s chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty said there was a “fair chance” cases would emerge in Britain as the overall number reported around the world climbed to about 2,744.
Britons trapped in the Chinese province at the centre of the outbreak have been urged to leave the area if they are able to do so.
Former foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt suggested airlifts for UK citizens in China and warned of the pressure the coronavirus could put on the NHS.
Asked if he supported flying Britons back from Wuhan and elsewhere, he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I think I would be very sympathetic and I’m sure the Foreign Office would be too.”
He said the NHS is well-equipped to deal with patients returning with the virus but warned that it could strain the service.
“This is a very difficult time of year for the NHS – it is the most difficult time. But, again, my experience is that the NHS does know how to cope with these kinds of emergencies.
“I think the thing that will be difficult is the knock-on impact on other NHS services,” he said.
“I think it would be very, very challenging for the NHS in terms of the regular workload but I have absolutely no doubt that, when it comes to doing what comes to necessary to isolate the virus and keep the public safe, our doctors and nurses will do exactly what they need to do.”
A Foreign Office spokesperson said: “We are working to make an option available for British nationals to leave Hubei Province due to the heavy travel restrictions and increased difficulty of accessing consular or medical assistance.
“The safety and security of British nationals is our number one priority. We continue to monitor developments and are in close touch with the Chinese authorities.
“If you are a British national in Hubei Province and require assistance please contact our 24/7 number +86 (0) 10 8529 6600 or (+44) (0)207 008 1500.”
Earlier, the Foreign Office had updated its guidance to “advise against all travel to Hubei province”, which has been on lockdown for several days as China seeks to contain the illness.
But the guidance also added: “If you are in this area and able to leave, you should do so. This is due to the ongoing novel coronavirus outbreak.”
It is thought that the virus passed from animals to humans at a market in Wuhan where illegal wildlife was being sold.
A pair of British teachers who have been working in Wuhan say they have not left their apartment for five days, that all transport has been stopped and “there is no place to go” and “so we are pretty much stuck”.
Jason Neal and Sophie Hunt told BBC Breakfast there has been no reassurance from the British authorities whom they have “struggled” to contact, possibly because of the time difference and them being closed over the weekend. They have about five days of food left and are keeping in touch with colleagues online while the scene outside is now like a “ghost town”.
Mr Neal said: “Even if the news is just to sit tight and nothing is going to change – I think it is just the silence that is disconcerting.
“We have not heard anything from outside of Wuhan for a week now.”
He said there is a support group for people who may need help and to get masks and some volunteers are going out to make deliveries.
Ms Hunt said emailing and trying to ring the authorities has brought a “useless automated response back from the embassy saying not to go” to the area.
She feels the Chinese authorities have made the right decision by shutting down the city, adding: “All we keep hearing is that the death toll is accelerating every day. All we can do really is sit tight and wait for more news.
“Although it is hard us being stuck here, we know that it is the safest possible option for us at the moment.”
Home Secretary Priti Patel said the Government was “looking at all options” to help Britons leave Wuhan following reports that officials have been asked to examine the logistics for an airlift from the city.
One academic told the Guardian his “best guess” was that 100,000 people had been infected with the flu-like virus.
Professor Neil Ferguson, from Imperial College London, told the paper: “There are very large numbers of Chinese tourists across Europe right now.
“Unless the Chinese manage to control this, and I’m sceptical about whether that is possible, we will get cases here.”
It comes as spectators celebrated Chinese New Year in central London, which marks the start of the Year of the Rat.
Authorities in China have cancelled a host of events marking New Year as they expand their measures against the virus.
Meanwhile, health officials are continuing to track down around 2,000 people who have recently flown into the UK from Wuhan, the area of China worst affected by the outbreak.
The DoH confirmed it is trying to find “as many passengers as we can” who arrived from the region in the past two weeks to check on their wellbeing.
It is understood Border Force officers have been recruited to help speed up the search for passengers as testing for the virus continues in the UK.
A public health hub has been set up in Heathrow, staffed by a rotating team of seven clinicians working in shifts to support patients on arrival.
A British teacher, who has lived in Wuhan for a decade, said he rang NHS 111 after landing at Gatwick Airport last week expecting to be called in for a test.
But David Marland, 34, said he was only asked if he had the “sniffles” and, when he said no, he was told to call back if he felt unwell.
He lives just five minutes from the live animal and seafood market in Wuhan where it is believed the SARS-like virus was passed to humans.
He walks through the market nearly every day and at least one person living in his apartment block in the Chinese city has tested positive for the flu-like illness.
Mr Marland, a mathematics teacher who has lived in Wuhan for a decade, fears he was given the wrong advice by NHS 111.
His family has asked him to stay away because they fear he could be carrying the virus, which has killed more than 80 people in China and infected more than 2,000 others.
It has since emerged that the virus is infectious in its incubation period.
Carriers can spread the disease for up to two weeks before symptoms show, according to Chinese officials.
Mr Marland, of West Wycombe, Bucks, told the Telegraph: “I’m potentially a risk to other people. I’m still within the two-week period so I could be spreading the disease everywhere without having any symptoms.
“I live five minutes from the Wuhan fish market. It’s not a nice place, full of chickens and dead hedgehogs.”
He said no-one in Britain had advised him to stay at home or stay away from others.
Referring to his call to NHS 111, Mr Marland said: “It was like they were just ticking boxes. It feels like they are leaving the door open to this thing.”
The Brit, who teachers at the Wuhan China Britain School, returned to Britain on January 17 after travelling from Wuhan to Gatwick through Shenzhen and Hong Kong.
One British man, who had travelled to Wuhan to visit his girlfriend, is stuck in the city after his return flight on February 3 was cancelled, and he described trying to get out of the area as “impossible”.
The 29-year-old, who did not want to be named, told the PA news agency: “There is no news on when the airport will reopen therefore the airline (China Southern) have just cancelled the flight.
“I’ve also had no help from the UK Embassy in Beijing who are conveniently closed for the weekend.”
Prof Whitty said following a meeting of the Government’s Cobra emergency committee in Whitehall on Friday that the virus looked “a lot less dangerous” than contracting Ebola, the recent coronavirus, Mers and “probably less dangerous” than Sars virus.
But he added: “What we don’t know is how far it’s going to spread, that really is something we need to plan for all eventualities.”
“We all agree that the risk to the UK public remains low, but there may well be cases in the UK at some stage.”
“We think there’s a fair chance we may get some cases over time.
“Of course this depends on whether this continues for a long time, or whether this turns out to be something which is brought under control relatively quickly.”