The 150 Britons airlifted out of coronavirus hotbed Wuhan are due back in the UK from China today and will be quarantined for 14 days.
They will not be allowed to see friends or family and anyone showing symptoms will be isolated in a separate unit.
Their return comes as the Chinese authority’s attempts to suppress news of the viral outbreak became known.
The UK risk level was raised from low to moderate yesterday as ministers were urged to “plan for all eventualities”.
The World Health Organisation last night declared the outbreak an international public health emergency. Boss Tedros Adhanom said the decision was made “not because of what is happening in China but because of what is happening in other countries”.
More than 8,100 people globally have been infected. France confirmed its sixth case yesterday as Italy confirmed its first two.
Those boarding the evacuation flight last night had to sign a form consenting to a fortnight’s isolation on their return and agree to any treatment recommended by UK experts.
After landing at RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire they were to be taken by bus to an NHS facility on the Wirral for tests.
They will stay in former student accommodation at Arrowe Park Hospital in Birkenhead until the potential 14-day incubation period for the disease is over.
They will have internet access and will be able to contact their loved ones.
Staff at the secure facility will wear protective clothing, according to sources.
Some expats refused to join the flight amid fears they could not bring spouses or children who are not British citizens.
Chris Hill, a Brit living in Wuhan with his wife and four-year-old daughter Renee, a Chinese national, stayed put as the Foreign Office could not confirm the youngster would be allowed on board.
Jeff Siddle, of Northumberland, said he and his nine-year-old daughter were told they could fly back – but not his Chinese wife.
Officials are still trying to find around 500 at-risk recent arrivals from Wuhan to the UK who are still within the potential incubation period. As of last night 161 had been tested and given the all-clear.
Yesterday Drew Bennett, 39, quarantined for three days in Birmingham amid fears he had the virus, was told he does not have it.
The Staycity apartment hotel in York was put on lockdown yesterday after a man, believed to be a Chinese national, was taken to hospital after falling ill on Wednesday.
And a British Airways plane landing at Heathrow from Hong Kong was locked down after two passengers complained of feeling unwell.
BA has grounded flights serving mainland China until at least the end of next month.
Virgin Atlantic has suspended its daily operations to Shanghai for two weeks from Sunday, but said flights to Hong Kong continue.
A British teacher in China described living in a city hit by the virus. Andy Nesbit, 36, works in Chengdu, in the south-western Sichuan province of China, which like Wuhan has been put on lockdown after 59 people were diagnosed with the virus.
The dad-of-two, from Leith, Edinburgh, told of motorways closed and people being attacked for not wearing face masks in public. He said sons Alan, eight, and Jack, four, have not left their flat in Chengdu for nearly a week.
He said: “Some main motorways out of the city have been closed. Going to the supermarket the roads were so quiet and on that short trip five ambulances went screaming by with sirens on. You can’t help but feel a bit freaked out. It’s a bit like a zombie apocalypse.
“I saw a video yesterday of a big fight between two women because one had refused to wear a mask on the subway.”
A leading UK expert on China claims whistleblowers who warned last month about the outbreak at Wuhan’s live animal market were arrested for “spreading rumours”, the Mirror can reveal.
A legal document seen by the Mirror appears to be signed and finger-printed by citizens promising to stop discussing the outbreak.
Their whereabouts now are not known. Dr Yukteshwar Kumar of the University of Bath, who obtained the document, said eight were held for talking about the outbreak on Chinese messaging service WeChat.
He told the Mirror: “They were asked to sign a confession stating that they will not spread false news. If they had taken steps earlier the situation could have been better because they did know about it.
“People could have been made aware in late December. The authorities could have stopped people travelling earlier.
“I highly appreciate the efforts made by the government of China in locking down the whole city. However, if they’d listened to the advice of these eight people and some scientists the situation would have been perhaps better.”
Tests on nine of the first-infected Chinese patients have confirmed it spread to humans from an animal sold at Wuhan’s Huanan seafood market.
The outbreak is only the fifth declared a public health emergency by the WHO in its seven-decade history, after ebola, swine flu, polio and zika.
Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said: “The safety and security of British nationals is our priority. Our embassy in Beijing and consular teams remain in close contact with British nationals in the region to ensure they have the information they need.”
The demand for face masks in the UK has risen, despite expert advice casting doubt on their effectiveness against coronavirus.
- The first person-to-person case in the US has been confirmed after a man in Chicago was infected by his wife who travelled to China. The woman in her 60s was diagnosed after her return from Wuhan on January 13. The couple are both in isolation. It is the sixth case reported in the US.