Epidemic of coronavirus could be 'rolling our way' China fails to halt spread, says UK health chief

NIcholas Cecil

An epidemic of coronavirus could be “rolling our way” if China fails to stop the spread of the deadly infection, the Government’s chief medical officer said today.

After Beijing raised the number of deaths and infections from the virus, Professor Chris Whitty stressed that the figures were still not believed to be accurate and reliable.

Asked on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme about predictions that the virus could spread widely in the UK, he said: “Once we get to the point we have a serious fix (on the numbers), if it looks as if there is an epidemic rolling our way, which is possible, I will be delighted to come back to this programme and talk through with real numbers.”

He also emphasised that the vast majority of people, possibly 98 per cent or more, recover from the new strain of coronavirus.

But as concerns grow that it will spread to other Asian countries on a large scale and then to Europe:

  • Health officials were racing to track people who came into close contact with a woman who flew from China to London and has now tested positive.
  • Britons who have decided to remain in China against Foreign Office advice were told to prepare for “all eventualities”, including being forcibly taken to a “fever” clinic if they show coronavirus symptoms.
  • The official death toll in mainland China spiralled to 1,367 as of the end of yesterday, up a record 254 from the previous day. The National Health Commission said there were 15,152 new confirmed infections, compared with 2,015 the previous day, bringing the total to 59,804. The sharp increases came after the authorities in Hubei, the region at the centre of the outbreak, introduced a new, quicker diagnostic method using CT scans.
  • China sacked the two top Communist Party officials in Hubei and its capital Wuhan after a backlash over their handling of the crisis.
  • An eight-month-old boy in Worthing, West Sussex, was feared by his parents to be showing “all the coronavirus symptoms”, after reportedly coming into contact with an infected GP. Children in the vast majority of cases in China have not been hard hit by the virus.
  • Forty-four more cases were confirmed on the Diamond Princess cruise liner, docked at Yokohama, south of Tokyo, bringing the total to 218, plus one quarantine officer.

UK health chiefs have a four-pronged strategy to fight the virus: containment; delay until at least the spring, hopefully the summer; science and research; and mitigation if there is a major outbreak.

Professor Whitty said: “The key thing is to understand that this depends on what happens in China. Broadly this goes one of two ways. The first way is that China gets on top of the epidemic and that there is spillover cases around the world but those are contained.

“We will have more cases in the UK, that’s highly likely, we may even get a little bit of onward transmission in the UK and then we will be able to pick up with those and then the epidemic goes away.”

For this scenario to play out, the “extraordinary efforts” of the Chinese government had to be successful, possibly helped by a “change in the seasons” as it is believed warmer weather will make it harder for the virus to spread.

“The alternative is this is not possible to contain in China and then starts to spread, probably initially quite slowly around the world and at that point, unless the seasons come to our rescue, then it’s going to come to a situation where we have it in Europe and in the UK,” added Professor Whitty.

The response to the virus in Britain is in the “containment” phase and delaying its arrival, particularly to the summer, would be a “big advantage” as it would “buy more time” to understand the virus, work out which drugs might work against it, and mean the NHS is under less pressure.

On average 8,000 people die a year from flu and there is not believed yet to be any “current circulation” of the new coronavirus here. The “best estimate” of health chiefs is that the fatality rate could be about two per cent. Professor Whitty believes it may be significantly lower but the authorities have to “plan for the worse”. Coronavirus first surfaced in December in Wuhan, and has since spread to more than two dozen countries, with concerns that it is taking hold in Singapore, where there are about 50 confirmed cases.

As anger grew in China, Beijing replaced the two top officials in Hubei Wuhan. Former Shanghai mayor Ying Yong succeeds Jiang Chaoliang as the Communist Party’s chief in the province, the Xinhua state news agency reported, and Wang Zhonglin will take over from Ma Guoqiang as party secretary in Wuhan. Earlier this week, two leaders of the provincial health commission were sacked. State media also reported that others were expelled from the party for actions related to the epidemic.

British diplomats repeated their warning for UK citizens to leave the country, amid concerns that more road, rail and air links will be restricted. “If you choose to remain in China it is recommended you plan for all eventualities,” said the British embassy in Beijing.

The outbreak is causing travel demand across the Asia Pacific region to slump. ForwardKeys, a travel analytic company, said airline bookings from across the region were 10.5 per cent lower for March and April 2020 compared with last year. That drop excludes trips to and from China and Hong Kong.

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