Coronavirus: British Airways halts flights to mainland China as cases exceed SARS

British Airways has suspended all flights to mainland China as the number of coronavirus cases in the country surpassed the SARS epidemic.

The airline, which operates daily flights to Shanghai and Beijing from Heathrow, has also suspended bookings on its website until March following advice from the Foreign Office warning against "all but essential travel".

A British Airways spokeswoman apologised but said the safety "of our customers and crew is always our priority", as it directed passengers due to travel to and from China in the coming days to its website,

Virgin Atlantic has told all travellers booked on flights to, from and through China, including Hong Kong, between 22 January and 29 February to rebook their flights, change their destination or request a refund.

Air China has adjusted its rules so tickets to China purchased before 28 January can be fully refunded.

In the last 24 hours, 26 people have died in China, bringing the death toll to 132, and the numbers of confirmed cases has soared to 5,974, an increase of 1,459 from Tuesday.

The latest figures mean the new virus, dubbed Wuhan Virus, has now infected more people than SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) which infected 5,327 people and killed 349 between November 2002 and July 2003.

All but one of the newly recorded deaths were in Hubei province, where the virus originated in its biggest city, Wuhan.

Wuhan is the epicentre of the virus and was placed under lockdown by the Chinese government last week, prompting other countries including Britain and the US to start evacuating their nationals from the city.

Governments around the world are advising people not to travel to China as uncertainty remains over how dangerous the new virus is and how easily it spreads between humans.

It is from the same family as the common cold as well as SARS.

There have been confirmed cases in countries across Asia, North America and Europe, although there have been no fatalities outside China.

Despite spreading, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has not classified the virus as a global emergency.

On Tuesday, UK health officials said 97 people tested for the virus were all negative, but England's director for health protection later warned it may still be present in the country .

People who have recently returned to the UK from Wuhan have been urged to "self-isolate" for two weeks.

British officials believe up to 200 citizens currently in Wuhan will want to return to the UK, and the Foreign Office is advising people in other parts of China to "make decisions based on their own personal circumstances".

Any British nationals in Hubei province must let the British Embassy know they want to leave before 11am local time on Wednesday ahead of a planned evacuation flight at 7am local time on Thursday, although this could happen before "with short notice".

Some nations are taking more drastic action than others to try to to avoid any major outbreaks, with the Philippines issuing a temporary blanket ban on tourist visas for Chinese nationals and issuing 100,000 free masks to Filipinos living in Hong Kong.

Hong Kong will cut all rail links to mainland China and halve the number of flights, while Beijing has agreed to halt travel permits for Chinese visitors to the city.

Japan chartered a flight carrying 206 evacuees from Wuhan which landed early on Wednesday in Tokyo.

On Wednesday morning, a plane carrying Americans who had been in Wuhan left for Anchorage, Alaska, where they wil be re-screened for the virus before being flown to Ontario, California.

South Korea will send a plane for its citizens and many other governments, including France, have also planned evacuations.

Australia is also among them, but Prime Minister Scott Morrison has said those who are flown out of Hubei province will be quarantined on Christmas Island.

Wuhan is one of 17 cities in Hubei province that China has cut off access to, trapping more than 50 million people in the most far-reaching disease control measures ever imposed.

The city of 11 million people is building two hospitals in a matter of days to add 2,500 beds for treatment of patients with the virus, with authorities warning the virus is getting stronger and they are unclear on its potential to mutate .

China built a hospital in just seven days to cope with the SARS outbreak, which eventually killed nearly 800 people around the world.

While anxiety continues to grow in tandem with the number of confirmed cases, there is already hope among some scientists that there could be a vaccine in the offing.

Researchers from The Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity in Melbourne have said they have grown a version of the virus that could be used to develop a vaccine.

It was grown from a patient sample received last week and will be used to generate an antibody test, which allows detection of the virus in patients who have not yet displayed any symptoms.

Dr Julian Druce said: "The virus will be used as positive control material for the Australian network of public health laboratories, and also shipped to expert laboratories working closely with the WHO in Europe."