The Scottish government has confirmed that five people in Scotland are being tested for suspected coronavirus after travelling to the country from China.
“Following travel to Wuhan, China, two people confirmed as diagnosed with influenza are now being tested for Wuhan novel coronavirus as a precautionary measure only. Three further people are also undergoing testing on a similar precautionary basis,” said a spokesman.
He added: “There are currently no confirmed cases of coronavirus in the UK and the risk to the Scottish public remains low.”
Downing Street said four of the suspected cases in Scotland are believed to involve Chinese nationals.
Belfast’s Royal Victoria hospital was also said to have a patient who was being tested for the new coronavirus, but the Belfast health trust refused to comment.
Around the world, so far the disease has killed 18 people and infected nearly 600. Cases have been reported in the US, Japan, South Korea, Thailand, Singapore and Hong Kong.
However the World Health Organization’s emergency committee said on Thursday that it was “too early” to declare an international public health emergency over the outbreak.
Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director-general of the WHO, said: “Make no mistake. This is an emergency in China. But it has not yet become a global health emergency. It may yet become one.
“I wish to reiterate, the fact that I am not declaring a public health emergency of international concern today should not be taken as a sign that WHO does not think the situation is serious, or that we are not taking it seriously. Nothing could be further from the truth. WHO is following this outbreak every minute of every day.”
Prof Jürgen Haas, the head of infection medicine at the University of Edinburgh, said he believed there would be many more cases in other cities in the UK.
Tests were being carried out and none of the patients had yet been confirmed as having the disease. The Scottish patients all travelled from Wuhan, where the outbreak is thought to have originated, within the past two weeks and were showing symptoms of respiratory trouble – a red flag for the virus.
Haas said they had “robust arrangements” to manage emerging diseases and were monitoring the situation closely.
He said the cases emerged overnight, adding: “The situation will be pretty similar in pretty much all UK cities with a large number of Chinese students. It’s not too surprising. My suspicion is that there will probably be many more cases in many other cities in the UK.”
Haas said there was only one laboratory testing for the virus, operated by Public Health England, and that the cases had been flagged up through the PHE infection guidelines as the patients had travelled to Wuhan within the last 14 days and were showing signs of respiratory symptoms.
Universities with links to China have issued warnings to staff and students travelling to and from areas affected by the coronavirus. Nine UK institutions have partnerships with Wuhan University in Hubei Province in central China, where the outbreak began.
Earlier in the day, the UK health secretary, Matt Hancock, told MPs there was an increased likelihood that the coronavirus would arrive in the UK, but said the authorities were well prepared and would remain vigilant.
What is the virus causing illness in Wuhan?
It's a member of the coronavirus family that has never been encountered before. Like other coronaviruses, it has come from animals, or possibly seafood. New and troubling viruses usually originate in animal hosts. Ebola and flu are examples.
What other coronaviruses have there been?
Severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) and Middle Eastern respiratory syndrome (Mers) are both caused by coronaviruses that came from animals. Chinese authorities initially played Sars cases down, and were subsequently much criticised because the virus spread virtually unchecked to 37 countries causing global panic, infecting more than 8,000 people and killing more than 750. Mers appears to be less easily passed from human to human, but has greater lethality, killing 35% of about 2,500 people who have been infected.
What are the symptoms caused by the Wuhan coronavirus?
The virus causes pneumonia. Those who have fallen ill are reported to suffer coughs, fever and breathing difficulties. As this is viral pneumonia, antibiotics are of no use. Antiviral drugs may be used, but usually only lessen the severity of symptoms.
Is the virus being transmitted from one person to another?
China’s health ministry has confirmed human-to-human transmission. As of 23 January the Chinese authorities had acknowledged 571 cases and 17 deaths. Those who have died are known to have been already in poor health - but mild cases may not be reported at all.
How worried are the experts?
There are fears that the coronavirus may spread more widely during the Chinese new year holidays at the end of January, when millions of people travel home to celebrate. At the moment, it appears that people in poor health are at greatest risk, as is always the case with flu. But the authorities will be anxious that the virus will become more potent than so far appears and will be keen to stop the spread.
Sarah Boseley Health editor
Hancock told the Commons that the UK was one of a few countries to have developed a test for the latest coronavirus, so any suspected case could be diagnosed quickly. However, the symptoms do not develop for five to seven days, and sometimes even up to 14, meaning the virus can circulate undetected.
The UK has advised against all but essential travel to Wuhan, where all the deaths so far have occurred and which is now under lockdown by the Chinese authorities. While the UK has put in place measures to check passengers at Heathrow airport arriving from Wuhan, the Chinese government has stopped flights out of the city.
“The chief medical officer has revised the risk to the UK population from very low to low and concluded that while there is an increased likelihood that cases may arise in this country, we are well-prepared and well-equipped to deal with them,” Hancock told MPs.
Some people arriving on the last flight from Wuhan on Wednesday said they had not received any health checks at Heathrow, MPs pointed out. Handing out information was the key thing, Hancock replied. “The most important part of the monitoring is to ensure everybody knows what to do if the symptoms arise.”
Several MPs said there were substantial numbers of Chinese students at universities in their constituencies. There was no specific advice for students, other than the general advice, Hancock said.
“I’m very happy to take away the point that we will ensure we are communicating through Universities UK with all universities, to make sure the message gets to all students directly and they hear the advice that is there for everybody.”
The Labour MP Hilary Benn asked what advice would be given to the public about the use of face masks, which they would see being used in China and elsewhere on the television. “People look at what people are doing in countries where the disease has taken hold and ask the authorities, ‘Why aren’t we doing the same?’” said Benn.
Hancock replied: “The wearing of face masks is not deemed clinically necessary now, but we will keep that under review and will be guided by the science.”