Coronavirus: Britain 'urgently exploring' options for Hubei evacuation

28 January 2020, 02:52 | Updated: 28 January 2020, 15:11

Britain is "urgently exploring" options for its citizens to leave the Chinese city of Wuhan, the epicentre of the outbreak.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson's spokesman said details of the plan are "being finalised".

Sky News understands that Britain and China are working on a possible evacuation of UK citizens from the area in the next few days.

China said 106 people have now died during the ongoing coronavirus outbreak, with more than 4,515 confirmed cases across the country.

Both numbers rose dramatically in the latest update from the National Health Commission, with most of those affected hailing from the city of Wuhan - the epicentre of the outbreak.

There are believed to be about 300 UK citizens still in Wuhan and the surrounding Hubei province, but the Foreign Office will work to evacuate the area in days, if not sooner.

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps told Sky News that the government is taking the situation seriously.

"We are asking anybody that is in the affected region to contact the consulate," said Mr Shapps.

"The first thing we have to do is to establish the number of people there - that work has been ongoing.

"We don't automatically have a list of people that happen to be in the region... Not everybody wants to be repatriated, and we are working on arrangements with international colleagues to do that."

Other countries are readying plans to evacuate their citizens. France said the first flight to repatriate French citizens would leave on Wednesday.

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The US consulate in Wuhan is preparing to fly its diplomats and other Americans out of the city, and the Japanese and Mongolian governments are also preparing flights.

It comes as Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam said on Tuesday that high-speed rail and ferry links to the Chinese mainland would be suspended from 30 January.

Wearing a green face mask, she also told reporters the number of flights would be halved and personal travel permits for mainland Chinese to the city temporarily frozen.

Meanwhile, Russia's Tass news agency reported that regions in the country's far east had closed the border with China until 7 February.

Moscow mayor Sergei Sobyanin also announced measures to protect against an outbreak in the city.

"We have taken special control of hotels and other places where tourists gather en masse," he wrote on his website.

"When alarming signs appear, emergency medical teams will be sent to carry out a thorough examination."

Uncertainty remains over how dangerous the virus is and how easily it spreads between humans, but cases have been confirmed in countries across Asia, North America and Europe - most recently Germany.

Thailand and Hong Kong have reported eight cases each, there are five each in the US, Australia, Taiwan, Singapore and Macau, four in South Korea, Japan and Malaysia, three in France, and two in Vietnam and Canada.

Germany, Sri Lanka and Nepal all have one confirmed case, but there have been no fatalities outside China.

Chinese authorities had warned on Monday that the virus, believed to have originated from an animal market in Wuhan, was getting stronger and that they were unclear on its potential to mutate.

Governments around the world are warning people to avoid travel to Wuhan and some are cracking down on arrivals from the city, while the Philippines has issued a temporary blanket ban on tourist visas for Chinese nationals.

On Tuesday, UK health officials said 97 had been tested for the virus but all were negative

People who have recently returned from Wuhan recently have been urged to "self-isolate" and England's director for health protection has warned the virus may already be in the UK.

Dr Yvonne Doyle told Sky News: "The most likely place that we're going to find a case is someone who is in the country already."

And asked if there could be cases already in Britain, she said: "I would expect so."

Health Secretary Matt Hancock said any travellers who had returned in the last two weeks should stay indoors and avoid contact with other people - and contact the NHS 111 service.

But for those Britons who still are in Wuhan, they remain uncertain of how they can get back home.

Up to 300 UK citizens are believed to be stuck in the city, as local authorities have closed all transport hubs including airports and railway stations, and many have expressed anger at the UK government over its response.

Despite spreading outside China, the World Health Organisation has not classified the virus as a global emergency.

Chinese President Xi Jinping has been criticised for his response to the outbreak in refusing to visit Wuhan, instead sending the premier Li Keqiang, but an enormous hospital is scheduled to open in the city within days.

Building work only began last week in response to the outbreak, but is already almost finished.

Which countries are planning evacuations?

UK - Plans still "being finalised" - Britons urged to contact consulate
US - Consular staff and some others expected to fly home Wednesday
Japan - First flight expected to leave China on Wednesday
South Korea - Several planes being sent to China on Thursday
France - First flight expected to land back in Paris on Thursday
Russia, Spain, Germany and the Netherlands - Still working on plans
Canada - Eight people have asked for help but no evacuations planned
Mongolia - Planning evacuations - timing unclear
Morocco - 100 people to be flown home - timing unclear

China responded similarly to the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak of 2002 and 2003, which eventually killed nearly 800 people around the world.

As well as building a hospital, China has also shut down several cities including Wuhan and severe travel restrictions have been put in place in a number of others.

In Wuhan, urban transport is shut and outgoing flights suspended, public transport is suspended in the major steelmaking city of Tangshan, and Beijing has put most bus services to neighbouring Hebei province on hold.

Aside from public health, the coronavirus is also having an impact on the markets - the FTSE 100 saw nearly £44bn wiped off the value of its constituent companies on Monday.

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