Experts will meet again later to decide whether to declare an international public health emergency over the coronavirus crisis that has claimed 17 lives in China.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) was expected to make the decision on Wednesday, but said they needed more information before deciding what to do, describing it as an ‘evolving and complex situation’.
Trains and planes have been banned from leaving the city of Wuhan in a bid to ‘seal off’ the 11 million people there and contain the contagious disease.
Around 547 cases of coronavirus have been confirmed in China’s Hubei province, of which Wuhan is the capital, but UK experts warn that as many as 4,000 people may actually have the virus – twice as many as first thought.
Professor Neil Ferguson, director of the Medical Research Centre for Global Infectious Disease Analysis, said the estimated number of people infected with coronavirus in Wuhan is around 4,000, with a range between 1,000 and 9,700.
Asked whether it was possible the virus had already reached the UK, professor Ferguson said: ‘We can’t rule out that possibility.
‘Border screening, and in this case, in the UK, alerting the health system is not 100% foolproof – there could be a mild case.’
One of the last flights out of the epidemic-hit Chinese city was met by biosecurity officials as it landed in Australia today, as the global effort to control the outbreak continues.
Mask-wearing passengers said they were questioned by health officials who briefed them on the symptoms of the novel coronavirus and handed out leaflets explaining how to respond if they noticed symptoms of the contagious disease.
Dad-of-two Kevin Ouyang, 40, who was returning to Sydney after a business trip to China, said: ‘They suggested (that) everyone wear their masks, and actually everyone (already) wore their masks. ‘Even the flight crew.’
Passengers arriving in the UK were also screened at Heathrow Airport by medical experts in a bid to stop the virus spreading here. A handful of cases have been identified abroad, including in Japan and the US, but there have been no reported cases in Britain.
There are three direct flights a week from Wuhan in China to Heathrow Airport, landing at around 6pm on Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
Under new measures, it was planned that planes would be taken to an isolated area of terminal four. The Foreign Office has advised against all but essential travel to the city.
The announcement to shut down Wuhan came in the middle of the night in China, with people desperately attempting to flee before being stopped.
Chinese state media said the city is shutting down outbound flights and authorities also suspended public buses and subways and said residents should not leave ‘without a special reason’.
WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreysus said there is a team in China working with local experts and officials to investigate the outbreak.
He said the organisation ‘will have much more to say’ today with the emergency committee meeting for a second time.
He added: ‘The decision about whether or not to declare a public health emergency of international concern is one I take extremely seriously, and one I am only prepared to make with appropriate consideration of all the evidence.’