Coronavirus 'a lot closer' to being declared pandemic as four more Brits contract disease

24 February 2020, 05:49

Experts fear the coronavirus outbreak is reaching a global tipping point - as cases soar outside China for the first time
Experts fear the coronavirus outbreak is reaching a global tipping point - as cases soar outside China for the first time. Picture: PA
EJ Ward

By EJ Ward

Four British nationals evacuated from the Diamond Princess cruise ship have tested positive for coronavirus after being brought back to the UK.

It comes as fears mount that the deadly disease could become a global pandemic, after a jump in the number of cases in countries around the world.

The Department of Health confirmed the infected Brits are being treated at a specialist facility in the north of England. The new of the new cases brings the total number of people to be diagnosed with the Covid-19 strain in the UK to 13.

In China, the number of deaths has now reached 2,592, while 77,345 people have tested positive for the virus as fears of a global pandemic grow.

There have also been cases in South Korea, Italy and Iran, among others. There is no vaccine.

The four infected who were brought back from Japan on a government evacuation flight are believed to be the first infected who have been repatriated to the country.

They were among a group of 30 Britons and two Irish citizens who arrived at a quarantine block at Arrowe Park Hospital in Merseyside on Saturday, but on Sunday NHS England confirmed the positive diagnoses.

The virus was passed on in the cruise ship, England's chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty said.

Authorities in China are attempting to halt the outbreak as cases outside the country grow
Authorities in China are attempting to halt the outbreak as cases outside the country grow. Picture: PA

Two of the patients are in the Royal Hallamshire Hospital in Sheffield, one is in the Royal Liverpool University Hospital and a fourth was taken to the Royal Victoria Infirmary in Newcastle.

The Department of Health said a "full infectious disease risk assessment" was done before the repatriation flight and that no-one who boarded the plane had displayed any symptoms of the virus.

Any more passengers who test positive will immediately be taken into specialist NHS care, the department said.

Hours before the latest UK cases were confirmed, 118 people were released from a coronavirus quarantine centre in Milton Keynes.

The group - who had been brought back to Britain earlier this month on a repatriation flight from Wuhan - spent 14 days at the Kents Hill Park training and conference centre.

Of the 13 people in the UK diagnosed with coronavirus, eight have been discharged from hospital. One remains at St Thomas' Hospital in London.

Elsewhere, authorities in Italy have battled to contain Europe's first major outbreak and Iran reported eight deaths - the highest toll outside of China.

Some of the disease clusters identified in recent days have shown no link to China, a worrying sign of the virus spreading beyond control.

The Iranian health ministry said there were now 43 confirmed cases in Iran, which did not report its first case of the virus until Wednesday.

In Italy's northern Lombardy region, which includes the nation's financial capital Milan, the governor announced the number of confirmed cases stood at 110.

Italy now has the latest number of cases outside Asia with 152 cases and three deaths with the most recent on Sunday.

Warning that China's virus epidemic is "still grim and complex," president Xi Jinping called for more efforts to stop the outbreak, revive industry and prevent the disease from disrupting spring planting of crops.

The University of East Anglia's Professor Paul Hunter said recent cases outside China have been "extremely concerning".

He listed South Korea, Japan and Iran as causes for concern and said a cluster of cases in Italy is "a big worry for Europe".

He said: "The director-general of the World Health Organisation has recently spoken of a narrowing of the window of opportunity to control the current epidemic.

"The tipping point after which our ability to prevent a global pandemic seems a lot closer after the past 24 hours."