People who have returned to the UK from coronavirus-hit Wuhan in China should “self-isolate” even if they have no symptoms, the Health Secretary has said.
In a significant ramping up of precautions in the UK, Matt Hancock said officials could not be 100% certain the virus is not spread by people who are not displaying symptoms.
The move means more than 1,400 people who have returned from Wuhan since January 10 should isolate themselves for 14 days from the date of leaving China.
Ministers have said they are working to get Britons out of Hubei province in China, with Prime Minister Boris Johnson insisting the Government is doing “everything we can”.
Officials estimate up to 200 UK citizens currently there will want to return to the UK.
If they end up being flown home by the Foreign Office, health officials will also tell them to “self-isolate” for 14 days.
If they are unable to stay at home, quarantine facilities will be provided, officials said.
Mr Hancock told MPs in the Commons that he had directed Public Health England to take a “belt and braces approach”.
“Coronaviruses do not usually spread if people don’t have symptoms – but we cannot be 100% certain,” he said.
“From today, we are therefore asking anyone in the UK who has returned from Wuhan in the last 14 days to self-isolate.
“Stay indoors and avoid contact with other people – and contact NHS 111. If you are in Northern Ireland, you should phone your GP.
“If you develop respiratory symptoms within 14 days of travel to the area, and are now in the UK, call your GP or ring 111 informing them of your symptoms and your recent travel to the city.
“Do not leave your home until you have been given advice by a clinician.”
Some 1,561 people are now known to have entered the UK from Wuhan since January 10, including airline crew, although some have since left again.
Just 10% of these people supplied an email address to the airline and have been contacted with advice on what to do if they feel ill.
Mr Hancock said Public Health England officials are trying to trace the others.
“Having eliminated those who we know have since left the country, there are 1,460 people we are seeking to locate,” he said.
Regarding those UK citizens who wish to leave Wuhan, he said: “The Foreign Office is rapidly advancing measures to bring UK nationals back from Hubei province.
“I have asked my officials to ensure there are appropriate measures in place upon arrival to look after them and protect the public.
“If you are in Hubei province and wish to leave, please get in contact with the Foreign Office.”
Public health teams are working 24 hours a day to greet the 66 flights a week coming to Heathrow Airport from China.
PHE is also putting teams in place at Gatwick and Manchester airports.
Health officials said on Monday that it is clear the virus is being passed from person to person but it does not look at this stage as if it is hugely infectious.
Experts expect more cases to emerge outside China, including in the UK.
At the moment, around 2% to 3% of people who get the virus die, most of them elderly or who have other health complications.
Around 10% to 11% of people who contracted Sars (severe acute respiratory syndrome) died.
On Monday afternoon, Mr Johnson told reporters efforts were being made to reassure UK citizens in Wuhan.
He said: “We are looking at everything we can to give reassurance to those people in Wuhan and you will be hearing a bit more in due course, but I don’t want to pre-empt the decisions we are going to make.”
He said travellers arriving in the UK would be “properly screened and checked if they have come from an area that is known to have the infection.
“So far, there is still no case of somebody with coronavirus here in the UK but clearly there are a lot of cases in China and it is spreading.”
Professor Yvonne Doyle of PHE said the first UK case is likely to come from somebody already in the country.
In an interview with Sky News, she said: “Our view is that, although airports are important, the most likely place that we might find a case is somebody in the country already, and it’s absolutely critical that the public health service and the NHS are ready to diagnose that and are able to designate the person to the right facilities.
“That’s the most likely scenario we are dealing with.”
Asked if there could be cases already in Britain, she said: “I would expect so.”
Prof Doyle said: “Isolating yourself from other people, like you would with other flu viruses, is in step with the best scientific and expert advice on how to stop the Coronavirus from spreading.
“This means taking simple, common-sense steps, such as staying at home and avoiding close contact with other people as much as possible.”
Prof Doyle urged anyone who has entered the UK from Wuhan and who has fallen ill with a fever, cough or difficulty breathing to contact NHS 111.
Some 73 people have been tested for coronavirus in the UK, although all tests have come back negative.
Hubei province has been on lockdown for several days as China seeks to contain the illness, with restrictions also in place in other major cities.
The number of people killed in China has risen to 81, with almost 3,000 confirmed ill.