Travellers from the area of China at the centre of the coronavirus outbreak will be separated from other passengers on arrival at Heathrow Airport as UK health chiefs step up their response.
Nine people have died and hundreds of others have been infected, with cases detected in countries including the US, Japan, Thailand and South Korea.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) is expected to declare a Public Health Emergency of International Concern in response to the virus, which appears to have originated in the city of Wuhan, in eastern China.
Update: Travellers from coronavirus-hit parts of China to be screened on arrival in UK as death toll hits nine
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.
“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.
“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.”
The Foreign Office has updated its advice for Britons travelling to China, warning the virus had spread to other areas outside the Hubei province.
Face masks sold out and officials at airports and train stations checked passengers for fevers as China sought to control the outbreak of a new virus. Anxiety grew both at home and abroad after Chinese government expert Zhong Nanshan confirmed fears on state television late on Monday that the new type of coronavirus can spread from human to human.
Hundreds of infections have been reported amid warnings from China that the disease can mutate
The US on Tuesday reported its first case, saying a Washington state resident who returned last week from the outbreak’s epicentre was taken to hospital near Seattle.
The stock prices of some companies that sell masks rose on Tuesday, but markets fell in much of Asia as investors worried about the potential impact on tourism and the economy.
Concerned about a global outbreak similar to Sars, another coronavirus that spread from China to more than a dozen countries in 2002-2003, numerous nations have adopted screening measures for travellers from China, especially those arriving from Wuhan, the central city where the virus appears to have originated.
Guards at Wuhan’s airport pointed electronic thermometers at travellers. Users of the popular Weibo social media platform urged others to wash their hands and stay home.
Outside the Wuhan Medical Treatment Centre, where many of the coronavirus patients are receiving care, several workers were dressed in full-body biohazard suits, supplemented by goggles, masks and plastic wrapped around their shoes.
While many wore masks in Wuhan, streets were far from deserted and people appeared to be carrying on with their regular activities.
Initial symptoms of the new coronavirus include fever, cough, tightness of the chest and shortness of breath.
The first cases late last month were connected to a seafood market, and transmission was thought to be occurring from animals to humans. Authorities previously had not confirmed human-to-human transmission.
In addition to 258 cases in Wuhan, more than 20 have been diagnosed in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangdong province in the south and Zhejiang in the east. Four cases have been confirmed overseas among Chinese travellers in South Korea, Japan and Thailand.
A Taiwanese businesswoman who just returned from Wuhan tested positive for the virus, Taiwan’s Centres for Disease Control reported on Tuesday.
Fifteen medical workers have also tested positive for the virus, the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission said. Two cases in Guangdong were people who had not visited Wuhan but fell ill after family members returned from there.
Mr Zhong cited those as evidence the disease had spread between humans. Australia, Japan, South Korea and the US were among the countries increasing airport screenings.
The coronavirus family includes those that cause the common cold, but some found in bats, camels and other animals have evolved into more severe illnesses like Sars, or severe acute respiratory syndrome, and Mers, Middle East respiratory syndrome.
The possibility the virus can be transmitted between people increases the chances it could spread faster and more widely.
The Chinese government has estimated people will make around three billion trips during the Lunar New Year travel season, but some social media users have said they may stay home due to concern about the virus.
In his first public remarks on the illness, Chinese president Xi Jinping instructed government departments to promptly release information on the virus and deepen international cooperation.
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang pledged rigorous measures to tackle the virus. “We will resolutely contain the spread of the epidemic,” Mr Geng said.
Coronavirus outbreak: what you need to know
– What is Coronavirus?
Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses that cause illnesses ranging from the common cold to more severe diseases such as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (Sars).
The strain that has recently emerged is a new strain that has not been previously identified in humans.
– Were did the Coronavirus come from?
Coronaviruses are zoonotic, meaning they are transmitted between animals and people, the World Health Organisation (WHO) says.
The first cases identified were among people connected to the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan. Cases have since been identified elsewhere which could have been spread through human-to-human transmission.
– How is the virus spread?
Questions remain about the outbreak’s nature and mode of transmission.
Chinese government expert Zhong Nanshan revealed on state television that human-to-human transmission had been confirmed. WHO says some coronaviruses can be transmitted in this way, usually after close contact with an infected person, for example, in a household workplace, or healthcare centre.
Dr Nathalie MacDermott, National Institute for Health Research academic clinical lecturer, King’s College London, said: “While data is still limited it appears likely that the Wuhan Coronavirus is spread through contact with an infected person’s secretions and respiratory droplet infection – this is contact with small particles in the air that occur when an infected person coughs or sneezes.”
– What are the symptoms of Coronavirus?
Initial symptoms of the novel coronavirus include fever, cough, tightness of the chest, shortness of breath and breathing difficulties. More severe cases can cause pneumonia, severe acute respiratory syndrome, kidney failure and death.
There are no specific treatments for a new coronavirus but symptoms can be treated.
– What is the scale of the problem?
The new type of coronavirus appears to have originated in the central city of Wuhan, which has reported 198 cases, including all of the fatalities. Others who have been diagnosed in Beijing, Shanghai and southern Guangdong province had also visited Wuhan.
Cases have since been detected in Chinese travellers in South Korea, Japan and Thailand. Fears are growing that the increased travel expected over the upcoming Lunar New Year period could aid the spread.
Dr Jeremy Farrar, director of Wellcome, said: “It is possible that the often mild symptoms, and probability of people being affected and infectious without experiencing symptoms (asymptomatic) from this coronavirus may be masking the true numbers of people who have been infected, and the extent of person-to-person transmission.
“It is also probable that we are looking at patients being affected over a number of days from multiple animal sources and with some degree of human-to-human transmission.”
– What is being done to stop it spreading?
Numerous nations have adopted screening measures for travellers arriving from China, especially those from Wuhan.
Australia’s chief medical officer Brendan Murphy said his country will be increasing airport screening, with three direct flights a week from Wuhan into Sydney.
And the World Health Organisation is holding an emergency committee on Wednesday in Geneva to ascertain whether the outbreak “constitutes a public health emergency of international concern, and what recommendations should be made to manage it”.
WHO is not currently recommending restriction of travel or trade.
The organisation is urging people to take measures to prevent infection spread including: regular hand washing, covering the mouth and nose when coughing and sneezing and thoroughly cooking meat and eggs. It also recommends avoiding close contact with anyone showing symptoms of respiratory illness such as coughing and sneezing.
Public Health England said travellers to Wuhan should practise good hand and respiratory hygiene and avoid animal and bird markets.