UK to Monitor Some Flights From China for Signs of Coronavirus

Peter Russell

January 22, 2020

The UK announced it would start monitoring passengers flying direct from Wuhan in China to London Heathrow in a series of precautionary measures following an outbreak of a new strain of coronavirus (2019-nCoV).

The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC), and Public Health England (PHE), said "enhanced monitoring" would be carried out on the three weekly direct flights.

A port health team would be on hand to provide advice and support to any passengers who felt unwell. Checks would be carried out for coronavirus, and information about symptoms and treatment would be provided, in Mandarin and Cantonese where necessary.

Leaflets and information would be made available across all UK airports, ahead of an expected increase in travel at the start of celebrations for the Chinese New Year on 25th January.

Officials in China later announced the suspension of flights out of Wuhan.

Risk Assessment Changed From 'Very Low' to 'Low'

The enhanced monitoring of direct flights would be kept under continuous review, and expanded to other Chinese departure points if necessary, the announcement said.

The risk to the UK population was changed to 'low' from 'very low', DHSC and PHE said, due to evidence that cases could be imported into this country.

However, there had been no confirmed cases of the new infection in the UK.

On Tuesday, the US reported its first case of the new coronavirus, saying a Washington state resident who returned last week from the outbreak's epicentre was being treated in hospital.

Airports in the US and other countries have stepped up monitoring, checking passengers from China for signs of illness.

Health officials began screening passengers arriving from Wuhan at three US airports — New York City's Kennedy airport and the Los Angeles and San Francisco airports. On Tuesday, the authorities announced that Chicago's O'Hare airport and Atlanta's airport would be added to the list.

Latest WHO Figures

As of 20th January, there had been 278 cases of 2019-nCoV confirmed in China, including six deaths in Wuhan, the World Health Organisation (WHO) said.

Other isolated cases have been confirmed in Thailand, Japan, and South Korea.

The WHO was first alerted to the new infection on 31st December 2019 when a cluster of pneumonia cases in Wuhan, in Hubei Province, came to light. Chinese authorities identified 2019-nCoV as the causative virus on 7th January.

Common signs of infection include fever, cough, and breathing difficulties. In more severe cases, infection can cause pneumonia, severe acute respiratory syndrome, kidney failure, and death.

In the UK, the DHSC issued clinical guidance for the detection and diagnosis of 2019-nCoV, and PHE has developed a diagnostic test, making the UK one of the first countries outside China to have a prototype specific laboratory test for this new disease.

Advice for Travellers

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, 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."

The UK later updated its travel advice. A Foreign & Commonwealth Office spokesperson said: "In light of the latest medical information, including reports of some person-to-person transmission, and the Chinese authorities’ own advice, we are now advising against all but essential travel to Wuhan.

"The safety and security of British nationals is always our primary concern, and we advise British nationals travelling to China to remain vigilant and check our travel advice on gov.uk."

Expert Reaction

Dr Jeremy Farrar, director, Wellcome, commented on the Science Media Centre: "This outbreak is extremely concerning. Person-to-person transmission has been confirmed and, as expected, we are seeing rapidly increasing case numbers across China, and in more countries, with health care workers infected."

He continued: "The speed with which this virus has been identified is testament to changes in public health in China since SARS and strong global coordination through the WHO. However, we know there is more to come from this outbreak – and with travel being a huge part of the fast approaching Chinese New Year, it is right that concern levels are at the highest level."

Prof Paul Hunter, professor in medicine, Norwich Medical School, University of East Anglia, said the Heathrow airport screening was "an important step towards reducing the risk of importation of the novel coronavirus.

"However, it is important to remember that screening arriving passengers by itself is not likely to be a very effective control measure. In the SARS epidemic almost 20 years ago, airport screening did not detect a single case looking at data from Australia, Canada and Singapore. Any detections were false alarms. Even using fever detection equipment would not increase the effectiveness of screening."

He added: "The real value of such screening, however, is as an opportunity to educate arriving passengers about the risks and the importance of seeking medical attention early. Such people will better know the importance of seeking medical attention sooner rather than later."

Editor's Note, 23rd January 2020: This article was updated to reflect travel-related developments.

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