Coronavirus set to become global health emergency - as UK begins checks at Heathrow

22 January 2020, 08:27

Passengers will be monitored as they enter the UK
Passengers will be monitored as they enter the UK. Picture: PA
EJ Ward

By EJ Ward

Passengers arriving at Heathrow Airport from China will be observed for signs of a Coronavirus as authorities in the country warn the virus could mutate.

The measures will apply to flights from Wuhan to London Heathrow, with travellers moved into a separate area when they arrive.

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps has said Public Health England is putting in place new precautions in relation to travellers to the UK from the region of China at the centre of the coronavirus outbreak.

The Department of Health and Social Care said "enhanced monitoring" will be put in place for all direct flights from Wuhan to the UK, including providing advice to travellers if they feel unwell and what symptoms to look out for.

The move comes as local media in Hong Kong report the first case of the virus has been confirmed in the region.

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The Cabinet Minister also confirmed Public Health England will upgrade the risk to the UK population from very low to low, while the World Health Organisation (WHO) is expected to declare a Public Health Emergency of International Concern.

"There have been some announcements this morning about flights that come direct from the affected region to Heathrow with some additional measures there," he told Sky News.

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"At the moment Public Health England have moved this from 'very low' to 'low' but obviously we want to stay ahead of the issue so we are keeping a very close eye on it.

"Initially this is to ensure that when flights come in directly into Heathrow there is a separate area for people to arrive in."

Nine people have died and hundreds of others have been infected, with cases detected in countries including the US, Japan and South Korea as increased precautions are taken to prevent the virus spreading during the busy Lunar New Year.

Chinese citizens are taking precautions
Chinese citizens are taking precautions. Picture: PA

It is expected Health Secretary Matt Hancock will put in place a series of "port measures" as a precaution which include:

A health team to meet each direct flight from Wuhan to London Heathrow

Passengers on flights will hear an announcement and be given a leaflet to encourage them to report if they are ill

Aircraft will land in an isolated area of Heathrow Terminal 4 that "better lends itself to any health contingencies"

Screening checks are already in place in China
Screening checks are already in place in China. Picture: PA

The move comes as authorities in China have warned the virus could mutate and spread further.

Gao Fu, of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and head of the Chinese Centre for Disease Control, said officials are working on the assumption that the outbreak resulted from human exposure to wild animals being sold illegally at a food market in Wuhan and that the virus is mutating.

Jiao Yahui, a health commission official, said: "The disease will continue to develop. It has developed different features compared with the early stage, and the prevention and precautionary measures need to change accordingly."

The number of cases of the virus has risen to 440 with many countries bringing in screening processes amid concern of a global epidemic.

Deputy Director of the National Health Commission Li Bin told reporters all the deaths had been in Hubei province, where the first illnesses from the new coronavirus were reported in December.

Mr Li said Japan and South Korea had confirmed one case each and Thailand three.

The Coronavirus could mutate, authorities have warned
The Coronavirus could mutate, authorities have warned. Picture: PA

The US and Taiwan also have reported one case each.

"There has already been human-to-human transmission and infection of medical workers," Mr Li said.

"Evidence has shown that the disease has been transmitted through the respiratory tract and there is the possibility of viral mutation."

Authorities are particularly concerned about travellers arriving from Wuhan, the central eastern city where the virus appears to have originated.

In China, face masks sold out and officials at airports and train stations checked passengers for fevers as the country sought to control the outbreak.

Guards at Wuhan's airport pointed electronic thermometers at travellers.