The first case of coronavirus in London was confirmed on Wednesday and the number of people infected in Britain increased to nine.
England’s chief medical officer, Chris Whitty, said the patient, who is now being treated at a specialist center at Guy’s and St Thomas’ Hospital in London, caught the virus while in China.
The woman developed symptoms soon after landing at Heathrow Airport, called medical services and later tested positive. Public health officials in the United Kingdom said they are now trying to hunt down anyone the infected person may have been in contact with. It is not yet known if she went to Wuhan or Hubei province, where the outbreak originated.
Experts are now exploring how to limit a potential epidemic in the UK to avoid a crisis within the National Health Service.
Whitty told BBC Radio 4’s Today program that hopes remain that China “gets on top of the epidemic”, but that delaying the onset of any full-blown outbreak of the virus in the UK would buy “more time”.
He said: “This depends on what happens in China, broadly this goes one of two ways. One is that China gets on top of the epidemic and there are spillover cases around the world but those are contained, and we will have more cases in the UK-that’s highly likely-we may even get a little bit of onward transmission in the UK, and we’ll be able to pick up with those, and then the epidemic goes away. That is possible.”
Whitty added: “If we are going to get an outbreak here in the UK-and this is an if not a when-then putting it back in time, into the summer period away from the winter pressures on the NHS, buying us a bit more time to understand the virus better, possibly having some seasonal advantage, is a big advantage.”
Whitty said containment and isolation remain the focus for medical teams-and that work was now under way to work out how to delay any potential outbreak in the UK.
He said: “We basically have a strategy which depends upon four tactical aims: the first one is to contain; the second of these is to delay; the third of these is to do the science and the research; and the fourth is to mitigate so we can brace the NHS.”
Of the total nine cases diagnosed in the UK, the first two were Chinese nationals testing positive in York. Two diagnosed this week have been identified as general practitioner doctors in Brighton. Public Health England confirmed on Wednesday that it has traced and advised all close contacts of the two doctors, including about 12 patients.
Paul Cosford, from Public Health England, told the BBC his teams were doing their best to contain the spread but given there were now a number of “countries of concern”, new cases were likely to be brought in by people travelling from abroad. He said identifying people quickly, tracing close contacts at risk of infection and keeping them in isolation was the main aim.