New coronavirus alert issued by health officials as Brits are urged to 'keep their distance'

Ross Lydall, ALEX LAWSON, NIcholas Cecil

Millions of people were today urged to “keep their distance” to stop an outbreak of coronavirus spreading in Britain.

The World Health Organisation called on countries around the globe to prepare for the arrival of Covid-19 as America warned that a pandemic was now likely.

Stockmarkets fell again today. More than £2.5 trillion has been wiped off the value of shares globally in the past four trading sessions as investors became spooked by the infection’s spread.

With more and more cases being confirmed in Asia, Europe and also the first diagnosis in South America, in Brazil, scientists were racing to learn more about the virus.

“The most important thing we are realising is it’s really infectious but it’s infectious if you are close up with people,” WHO coronavirus response envoy Dr David Nabarro told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

A pedestrian wears a face mask whilst walking along High Holborn in central London (PA)

“So social distancing, learning to actually not have to be very close with each other, is really important.”

London faces particular challenges given it is one of the most visited cities in the world, with hundreds of thousands of people packing into the Tube every day.

Public Health England medical director Yvonne Doyle told its board meeting this morning that 19,000 people had called its helpline last night.

She said: “If the situation changed and we were trying to mitigate spread, we would look at school closures.”

A man is seen wearing a mask while walking along the Thames (AFP via Getty Images)

Ms Doyle added that two of the four Diamond Princess passengers had now tested negative for coronavirus. US oil giant Chevron yesterday sent home 300 workers from its Canary Wharf office after an employee, who had recently returned from a country hit by coronavirus, reported flu-like symptoms. Thirteen people have been treated in the UK for Covid-19 which is not believed to be transmitting between people here.

Checks of patients displaying possible symptoms at hospitals and GP practices are being stepped up to try to catch any outbreak early.

Dr Nabarro, who led UN campaigns against ebola and cholera, emphasised that countries needed to “react speedily” to Covid-19 outbreaks, such as quarantining communities, as is happening in northern Italy.

Dr Margaret Harris, of the WHO, suggested draconian actions taken by the Chinese authorities, including forcing people infected into clinics, shutting down cities and transport links, might have prevented a million cases.

Health chiefs in the UK have said that quarantining whole communities here is unlikely. Other measures, yet to be announced in detail, are being favoured in most circumstances.

With about 18 schools sending staff and pupils home after trips to Italy, Health Secretary Matt Hancock was due to update MPs this afternoon on the scale of the crisis.

The decline of the virus in China has given hope that the infection can be controlled but health bosses are worried about its spread in other countries.

In other developments:

  • Thirty new cases were confirmed in Lombardy and Veneto, northern Italy, taking the total to 317, with four children, including a four-year-old girl, infected. The death toll rose by one person to 12.
  • The illness has now spread to seven other Italian regions, including Sicily in the far south, with the total number of cases nationwide climbing above 350.
  • Italians or people who had recently visited the north of the country have tested positive in Spain, Austria, Switzerland, Croatia and France.
  • Four people, including a doctor who had been in northern Italy, and who were staying at the H10 Costa Adeje Palace in Tenerife, have tested positive for the virus, with Britons among hundreds of holidaymakers confined, at least temporarily, to their hotel rooms.
  • Another hotel in Innsbruck, Austria, named locally as the Grand Hotel Europa, was in quarantine after an Italian receptionist was reportedly diagnosed with the virus.
  • A 60-year-old Frenchman has died of the virus in a Paris hospital, the first French fatality. It is the second coronavirus death in France, after an 80-year-old Chinese man died this month.
  • German health chiefs said a man in his forties with an underlying health condition and who contracted Covid-19, was in a critical condition and had been taken to a specialist hospital in Dusseldorf.
  • The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urged Americans to prepare for an outbreak as a pandemic was likely. America has reported 57 cases of the virus.
  • The first positive test in South America has been recorded after 61-year-old Brazilian man who had recently been to northern Italy tested positive

In London, the FTSE 100 tumbled 73.36 points, or 1 per cent, to 6,944.52, falling through the 7,000 mark for the first time in a year. The more domestically focused FTSE 250 plunged 353.78 points, or nearly 2 per cent, to 20,362.19. Stock markets in France, Germany and Italy all fell.

Neil Wilson, an analyst at, said: “At present there is no sign of a stabilisation in progress — trying to guess when the bottom is in will be dangerous.”

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