Over the past few days, newspaper headlines have been dominated by one thing – coronavirus.
Originating in the Chinese city of Wuhan – which is home to 11 million people – the virus is believed to have infected hundreds of people in the country.
On Thursday, authorities in China effectively put Wuhan on lockdown in an attempt to stop the virus spreading, with flights suspended, train stations closed and check points put in place.
While the vast majority of cases have been reported in China, incidents of the virus have also been detected in at least eight other countries.
But what about the UK – what are authorities doing to prevent an outbreak of coronavirus? And what happens if cases are discovered here?
What is coronavirus?
First things first: What is coronavirus? Coronaviruses are actually a large family of viruses – the strain that has caused this outbreak is known clinically as 2019-nCoV.
According to World Health Organisation, these viruses are zoonotic, meaning they are transmitted between animals and people. However, experts believe there could also have been human-to-human transmission in the case of 2019-nCoV.
Symptoms of the new coronavirus include a fever, coughing, tightness in the chest, shortness of breath and breathing difficulties.
Current data suggests that 26 people have died during an outbreak of this virus in China – where it began – while more than 800 people have been infected.
The virus has also been detected in Thailand, Vietnam, Singapore, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and the US.
Has coronavirus reached the UK?
So far, the 14 people in the UK tested for the virus have all received the all-clear. However there are checks ongoing on other people, according to the Chief Medical Officer Professor Chris Whitty.
However, while health secretary Matt Hancock insisted on Friday that the risk to the public remains low, Professor Paul Cosford – emeritus medical director at Public Health England (PHE) – said it was “highly likely” that cases would be seen in the UK.
What are authorities doing to prevent an outbreak?
Flights in and out of Wuhan – the city in China where the outbreak originated – have been suspended while Chinese authorities attempt to quarantine the area.
However, PHE has said that if the flights resume, a number of procedures will be put in place to stop potentially-infected passengers from spreading the illness in the UK.
These include playing a message on the plane to encourage travellers to report if they don’t feel well and creating an isolated area at Heathrow airport for any planes where its suspected passengers have been infected with the virus.
Meanwhile, medics have been given advice about how to detect cases of coronavirus and how to control the infection.
GPs, for example, have been told to isolate anyone who has recently travelled from Wuhan who shows symptoms of the virus. According to the guidance, patients with suspected coronavirus should not be physically examined by staff or allowed to use communal toilet facilities.
Private schools have also been told to plan for the possibility that some of their overseas students may not be return home over the holidays due to the coronavirus outbreak in China.
What will happen if there are coronavirus cases in the UK?
According to authorities, the UK is one of the countries outside of China that has “assured testing capability” for the 2019-nCoV, which means medics should be able to work out if people have been infected or not. (Coronaviruses can be difficult to differentiate from one another.)
If someone is diagnosed with the virus, they will be sent to one of the country’s specialist treatment centres – otherwise known as ‘High Consequence Infectious Disease’ (HCID) treatment centres.
These centres have the facilities and specialist staff to implement “robust infection control measures”, PHE said.
There are four airborne HCID treatment centres in the England, with services provided by six NHS trusts:
- Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust
- Royal Free London NHS Foundation Trust, with a paediatric service provided by Imperial College Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust
- Royal Liverpool and Broadgreen University Hospitals NHS Trust, with a paediatric service provided by Alder Hey Children’s NHS Foundation Trust
- Newcastle upon Tyne Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust
Meanwhile, there are two principal contact HCID treatment centres – the Royal Free London High Level Isolation Unit and the Newcastle Royal Victoria Infirmary.