London's tube could help spread coronavirus as capital gets first case, doctors say

13 February 2020, 05:30

Doctors have warned the London Underground could serve as a hotbed for the COVID-19 coronavirus
Doctors have warned the London Underground could serve as a hotbed for the COVID-19 coronavirus. Picture: PA
EJ Ward

By EJ Ward

Health experts have warned London's Underground network could be a hotbed for the spread of the coronavirus which has swept China.

Doctors have said Covid-19 could be spread further afield by the capital's status as a world transport hub. However, experts have said the risk of infection for residents in the capital remains low.

The warning comes after a London woman became the ninth person in the UK to test positive for the deadly virus which has seen China go into lockdown.

Speaking to LBC the Mayor of London Sadiq Khan said it is still safe to use the Underground, he said: "There are process in place and laws in place to make sure we're safe if, for example, it was to get to a stage where the advice was different we'd let you know, but the risk level now is, what's called, moderate."

The Mayor said he was in regular contact with public health authorities. He told LBC "there is no danger in using, buses or tubes or trains." He reassured listeners he would let the public know if there was a warning issued by authorities.

The latest patient, who is being treated at Guy's and St Thomas' Hospital, is believed to be a woman who flew into London from China.

"In general, if an initial case is in a densely populated area, then the risk of sustained person-to-person transmission following is higher," Dr Robin Thompson of Oxford University said.

"This is exacerbated by the fact that London is a transport hub, and the underground could provide a network to spread the virus quickly.

"As a result, given this case was in London, it might be expected that there is an increased risk posed by this case compared to the others we have seen."

The news came as authorities in China announced a total of 48,206 cases of COVID-19 are now being treated in Hubei province alone, most of them in the city of Wuhan.

According to the region's health commission, 33,693 people are still being treated in hospital - and 5,647 of them are said to be critically ill.

The number of infected across China rose to nearly 60,000, while there are now 1,355 confirmed deaths from the virus, with 242 fatalities in the last 24 hours.

Dr Michael Head from the University of Southampton added: "It should also be noted that of the 1,750 tests carried out so far in the UK, over 99% of those tested have been negative for the coronavirus.

"Thus, risks to Londoners and UK residents remain low, though people should continue to keep an eye on guidance for the general public."

While the patient has now been quarantined, Dr Thompson says the risk of the virus spreading depends on the woman's interactions prior to being placed in isolation.

"The key factor here is the number of contacts that this infected individual has had prior to being isolated," he said.

"If this is low, then the risk of sustained human-to-human transmission is also low."

As Public Health England investigates the patient's movements, Dr Nathalie MacDermott from the National Institute for Health Research said London commuters should continue to go about their business as usual.

"Provided the individual followed the government's advice (to self-isolate) there should be little concern of transmission to the general public in London," she said.