Londoners spotted wearing coronavirus masks... with Britain stepping up action plan as deadly illness spreads in Europe from Italy

Sean Morrison
A man who appears to be homeless sleeping wearing a mask today in Victoria: Jeremy Selwyn

Londoners were this morning spotted wearing coronavirus masks, with not only commuters taking the precaution against the deadly illness but also newspaper vendors and a man who appeared to be homeless.

It comes as preparations for a severe outbreak in Britain are being stepped up as the virus continues to spread across Europe.

The Foreign Office advised on Thursday night against “all but essential travel” to the 11 locked-down towns at the centre of the Italian outbreak.

And officials said surveillance system involving GP surgeries and hospitals aims to establish whether the virus is spreading in the UK.

Schools in the UK are also taking action to protect against Covid-19 amid fears of a global pandemic. Some have closed while others have sent pupils home for fear they may have caught coronavirus from ski trips to northern Italy.

Two women wearing a protective facemask walk across the Piazza del Duomo in central Milan (AFP via Getty Images)

Britons returning from northern Italy, where 229 people have contracted the virus and seven have died, were told they may have to self-isolate.

Authorities in Italy reported that the number of people infected in the country grew to 322, or 45 per cent in 24 hours, and deaths of patients rose to 11.

Austria, Croatia and Switzerland reported their first cases, while Spain and France recorded new ones, including those who had been to northern Italy.

Meanwhile Public Health England announced that flu patients will now be assessed for coronavirus to see if it is spreading.

Official advice has been changed to say people who have been in Italy north of Pisa should self-isolate if they develop flu-like symptoms on their return to the UK.

On Tuesday, Cransley School in Northwich, Cheshire, and Trinity Catholic College in Middlesbrough announced they would be closed for the rest of the week.

Both schools said that this was to allow for a "deep clean" after pupils and teachers had returned from ski trips in northern Italy.

Trinity Catholic College said that a "small number of staff and pupils" had started showing mild flu-like symptoms following a ski trip.

Meanwhile, Sandbach High School in Cheshire said students and staff who visited Aprica, in Italy's Lombardy region, were to stay indoors and self-isolate.

A third Cheshire school, Brine Leas School in Nantwich, said its sixth form was closed due to staff shortages following advice regarding travel to Italy.

Students from Penair School in Truro, Cornwall, Salendine Nook High School in Huddersfield, Cardinal Heenan Catholic High School in West Derby and Newquay Tretherras in Newquay, have also been advised to stay home after returning from ski trips.

Britons who have been in locked-down regions of Italy - including Lombardy and Veneto - were told they should self-isolate at home for 14 days even if they have no symptoms.

The Foreign Office later updated its travel advice. A spokesman said: "We advise against all but essential travel to 10 small towns in Lombardy and one in Veneto, which are currently in isolation due to an ongoing outbreak of coronavirus.

"Any British nationals already in these towns should follow the advice of the local authorities."

Health ministers from seven European nations have met in Rome to discuss a coordinated response.

The European Commission, which enforces the rule book for the open-border Schengen Area, encouraged countries to adopt measures based on scientific evidence and "in coordination and not in a fragmented way", a spokeswoman said.

Symptoms of Covid-19 include a cough, fever and shortness of breath.

England's chief medical officer, Professor Chris Whitty, said schools could be shut and public transport reduced if coronavirus became a global pandemic.

He said: "There's no secret there's a variety of things you need to look at, you look at things like school closures, you look at things like reducing transport."

A woman with a protective face mask in front of the Duomo in Milan (AFP via Getty Images)

Prof Whitty said families could also be asked to self-isolate if one of them had symptoms of the virus.

As of February 25, a total of 6,795 people have been tested in the UK with 13 positive cases.

The Department of Health also added Iran, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Burma and parts of northern Italy to the list of places where travellers need to follow clinical advice.

China has reported 77,658 cases and 2,663 deaths, while South Korea has the second highest number of cases with 893 and eight deaths.

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Pupils sent home from UK schools after trips to coronavirus-hit Italy