The government will monitor flights arriving from China as part of a range of precautionary measures to mitigate the spread of a new coronavirus to the UK amid the ongoing outbreak in Wuhan.
China has confirmed nine deaths and around 440 cases, but the London-based Medical Research Centre for Global Infectious Disease Analysis believes the number of cases could be 10 times higher.
China Southern operates three direct Wuhan-Heathrow flights a week, while a number of other UK airports have direct links to China, where the infection has spread to Beijing and Shanghai.
Heathrow confirmed on Wednesday (22 January) it was working with the government to “support the implementation of enhanced monitoring measures as a precaution”.
Wuhan flights into Heathrow will be met in an isolated part of Terminal 4 where health teams will be on standby to check passengers over for, and provide details of, any symptoms. The virus is known to cause respiratory illnesses in humans, akin to pneumonia or bronchitis, with cold-like symptoms such as headache, cough, sore throat and fever.
Public Health England (PHE) has upgraded the risk to the UK from very low to low, while the Foreign Office (FCO) has urged travellers to be aware of health screening measures in China.
The Department of Health (DoH) and PHE issued a full bulletin on the outbreak on Wednesday afternoon, stating the UK was “carefully monitoring” the situation in Wuhan and was “ready to put in place proportionate, precautionary measures”.
“From today [Wednesday], enhanced monitoring will be in place from all direct flights from Wuhan to the UK,” it read. “The enhanced monitoring package includes a number of measures to provide advice to travellers if they feel unwell.
“For those travelling back directly from Wuhan, this includes a port health team who will meet each direct flight aircraft to provide advice and support to those who feel unwell. The team will include a principal port medical inspector, port health doctor, administrative support and team leader.”
Passengers will be checked for symptoms and provided leaflets, available in Mandarin and Cantonese, with information on what to do in the event they do become ill. These leaflets will be made available across all UK airports.
The DoH and PHE further stated monitoring of direct flights would be kept under continuous review, and could be expanded to other Chinese departure points if necessary should the infection spread further in China.
“The risk to the UK population has been assessed as low, based on the emerging evidence regarding case numbers, potential sources and human to human transmission,” said the DoH and PHE. “This has been raised from very low due to evidence on the likelihood of cases being imported into this country. There are no confirmed cases of this new infection in the UK.”
China’s National Health Commission confirmed on Monday (20 January) the infection could pass from human to human after examining two cases in Guangdong province.
Cases have been confirmed in Japan, the US, Thailand, South Korea, Taiwan, Macau and Hong Kong, while several nations have introduced additional screening measures including the US in three major cities, as well as Australia, Singapore and Japan.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) is due to meet on Wednesday (22 January) to decide whether to declare an international public health emergency, which would demand a global response.
Dr Nick Phin, deputy director of PHE’s National Infection Service, said: “This is a new and rapidly evolving situation where information on cases and the virus is being gathered and assessed daily.
“Based on the available evidence, the current risk to the UK is considered low. We are working with the WHO and other international partners, who have issued advice to the NHS and are keeping the situation under constant review.
“If you are travelling to Wuhan, you should maintain good hand, respiratory and personal hygiene, and should avoid visiting animal and bird markets or people who are ill with respiratory symptoms.
“Individuals should seek medical attention if they develop respiratory symptoms within 14 days of visiting Wuhan, either in China or on their return to the UK. They should phone ahead before attending any health services and mention their recent travel to the city.”