The NHS is “ready to respond appropriately” to any cases of coronavirus that emerge in the UK, Health Secretary Matt Hancock has said.
In a statement to the Commons on Thursday, he said that while “there is an increased likelihood that cases may arise in this country, we are well prepared and well equipped to deal with them”.
On Wednesday night, China suspended all flights, including international services, out of Wuhan city – the epicentre of the virus outbreak.
Another city close to Wuhan, Huanggang, is also on lock-down as officials try to contain the spread of the virus.
Mr Hancock told MPs there had been 571 cases of coronavirus and 17 deaths confirmed by the Chinese government.
He said: “This is a rapidly developing situation and the number of deaths and the number of cases is likely to be higher than those that have been confirmed so far, and I expect them to rise further.”
He told how cases of the virus have also been reported in Thailand, Japan, South Korea and the US.
Mr Hancock said “most people” affected have experienced cold and flu symptoms, though some cases have proved fatal.
“We have been closely monitoring the situation in Wuhan and have put in place proportionate, precautionary measures,” he said.
“Since yesterday, Public Health England officials have been carrying out enhanced monitoring of direct flights from Wuhan city and all passengers on direct flights from China will receive information on what to do if they fall ill.”
He said England’s chief medical officer, Professor Chris Whitty, is in contact with international experts and his counterparts to monitor the situation.
Mr Hancock said: “The chief medical officer has revised the risk to the UK population from very low to low, and has concluded that while there is an increased likelihood that cases may arise in this country, we are well prepared and well equipped to deal with them.
“The UK is one of the first countries to develop a world-leading test for coronavirus, the NHS is ready to respond appropriately to any cases that emerge, clinicians in both primary and secondary care have already received advice covering initial detection and investigation of possible cases, infection control and diagnostics.
“The public can be assured that the whole of the UK is always well prepared for these type of outbreaks and we will remain vigilant and keep our response under constant review in light of emerging scientific evidence.”
Experts from the World Health Organisation (WHO) are meeting again on Thursday to decide whether to declare a global public health emergency over the virus.
Chinese state media said train stations and airports in Wuhan have been closed, while ferries and long-distance buses have been stopped.
Gauden Galea, the WHO’s representative in China, said: “To my knowledge, trying to contain a city of 11 million people is new to science.
“It has not been tried before as a public health measure. We cannot at this stage say it will or it will not work.”
The People’s Daily newspaper in China also reported Hong Kong has had its first confirmed case of the illness.
In the UK, there are usually three direct flights a week from Wuhan to Heathrow, landing at around 6pm on Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
Under measures announced on Wednesday by the Government, the planes would have been taken to an isolated area of Terminal 4 after landing.
Meanwhile, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has updated its travel advice for China, with a spokesman saying: “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.”
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 is possible the virus has already reached the UK, Prof Ferguson said he could not rule it out.
Explaining why there is global concern about the virus, Dr Josie Golding of the Wellcome Trust said it is because so little is known about it and vital information is “missing”, like how easily it can be transmitted and where it is coming from.