A search to find the source of UK’s first coronavirus infection within the country will be ‘crucial’ in preventing its spread, experts have warned.
On Friday it was revealed that a new case of coronavirus – the 20th out of 23 confirmed in the UK – had not been contracted abroad like the previous cases.
Health officials have said that it is not yet clear if the virus had been passed on “directly or indirectly” from somebody who had recently travelled abroad.
Jonathan Ball, professor of molecular virology at the University of Nottingham, said UK transmission was “always a real possibility” and that with symptoms very similar to flu, it can be easy for Covid-19 to go under the radar.
“This case – a person testing positive for novel coronavirus with no known link to an affected area or known case – marks a new chapter for the UK and it will be crucial to understand where the infection came from to try to prevent more extensive spread,” said Ball.
“This was always a concern – this is a virus that frequently causes symptoms very similar to mild flu or a common cold, and it’s easily transmitted from person to person.
“This means it can easily go under the radar.”
Three new cases of the virus were confirmed on Saturday, all of which were found in patients who had recently travelled to high-risk countries. The total number of cases now stands at 23.
Meanwhile, government is reportedly preparing to bring in new emergency powers to help stop the spread of Covid-19.
It is understood that this will give schools, councils and other parts of the public sector powers to suspend laws – including health and safety measures – to cope with a pandemic.
Teachers and nursery workers will be allowed to have larger classes to cope with staff absences under the laws, which are due to be introduced next week.
Dr Stephen Griffin, associate professor at the University of Leeds, said: “Whilst the first person-to-person transmission within the UK may come as a shock to many, it was really only a matter of time.
“What now becomes critically important is our ability to identify, isolate and care for infected individuals, and to trace their recent contacts.
“If localised outbreaks remain contained then it should be possible to limit the impact upon the UK. However, I suspect the frequency of small outbreaks might increase in coming weeks as the source countries of imported cases become more diverse.
“If we experience a burgeoning epidemic as seen in South Korea it will represent a significant challenge to our already stretched NHS and public health infrastructure.
“As directed by WHO, we should use this time window to invest and prepare for such a potential outbreak, whether it happens or not.”
The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) said the original source of the virus was “unclear”, adding that there was no “immediately identifiable link” to overseas travel.
According to Public Health England (PHE), one of the latest coronavirus cases was a resident in Surrey.
Haslemere Health Centre in the county was closed on Friday, with a statement on its website saying: “The surgery is temporarily closed today to enable a clean of the surgery as a routine precautionary measure. The practice will reopen on Saturday and patients will be advised if their appointment needs to be rearranged.”
Dr Michael Head, senior research fellow in global health at the University of Southampton, said it was “unsurprising” to see a case of human-to-human transmission in the UK.
He added: “There will be significant efforts to look at how this patient came to be infected, who is the index case in the UK and to see if any there are any other secondary cases.
“Though this is a notable development here in the UK, the overall risks to the public right now remain unchanged.”
On Friday it emerged that a British man, reported to be in his 70s and said to have lived abroad, was confirmed as the first UK citizen to die from coronavirus.
The man, who was on board the Diamond Princess cruise ship which has been quarantined off Japan’s coast amid the outbreak, was the sixth person from the vessel to have died.
The spread of the virus comes as the UK’s leading index of companies saw its sharpest weekly fall since the middle of the financial crisis as markets lost 3.2% on Friday.
The bloodbath that has gripped markets for days continued, wiping more than £200 billion off shares on the FTSE 100 this week, as traders panicked over the spread of coronavirus.
It includes a major drop on Friday, with the index losing 215.79 points to 6,580.61 as the blue chip index posted its worst week since the depths of the global financial crisis in October 2008.