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DR MARTIN SCURR: Mercy flight home to the UK from Wuhan could turn into a disaster 

Anyone who has studied public health emergencies knows that the only sensible strategy is to act from the very beginning according to the worst case scenario.

Yet the Government’s response so far to the escalating crisis over coronavirus is hardly instilling confidence.

One of Britain’s leading experts in the field, Jonathan Ball, Professor of Molecular Virology at Nottingham University, warned yesterday that ‘the rapidity of this outbreak is startling and certainly much more rapid than severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS)’, which is caused by another coronavirus and killed 700 people in the early 2000s.

Chinese people around the world have started wearing plastic containers and bags over their heads to protect themselves from the coronavirus

Professor Ball added: ‘The reasons for this are unclear, but clearly the larger the outbreak grows the more difficult it becomes to contain it using usual infection control measures.’ 

This is not a man prone to hyperbole and with 132 deaths reported as of last night and more than 6,000 people infected – don’t forget these figures may be a serious under-estimate by Chinese health officials – I for one take his concerns seriously.

Others certainly share them.

Today the World Health Organisation will again meet to decide whether or not to declare this outbreak of a new strain of coronavirus an international emergency.

And while Health Secretary Matt Hancock will chair an emergency COBRA meeting today ahead of the repatriation of UK citizens from the city of Wuhan at the epicentre of the outbreak, I believe Boris Johnson and his ministers have been slow to respond in a way that best safeguards the public.

Photographs have surfaced on social media which appear to show the desperate lengths people are going to to avoid catching the deadly disease which has killed more than 130 people already

Photographs have surfaced on social media which appear to show the desperate lengths people are going to to avoid catching the deadly disease which has killed more than 130 people already

Reports of this mysterious infection began to appear in the first week of January. But the moment ministers should have realised the seriousness of the problem came nine days ago when the WHO reported medical staff had become infected after treating patients.

Healthy medical staff trained in managing infectious patients nevertheless succumbed to the symptoms. 

Why wasn’t the risk here upgraded then? With each day that passes, the public is increasingly worried. 

With the Foreign Office warning against all but essential travel to mainland China and British Airways cancelling all flights to and from China, it is no wonder.

Ministers should have realised the seriousness of the problem when the WHO reported medical staff had become infected after treating patients. Pictured, medical staff treat a patient with the new coronavirus at the Zhongnan Hospital of Wuhan

Ministers should have realised the seriousness of the problem when the WHO reported medical staff had become infected after treating patients. Pictured, medical staff treat a patient with the new coronavirus at the Zhongnan Hospital of Wuhan

Yet the reaction of ministers has seemed fragmented and illogical, guided more by politics, appearances and sound bites than by the pitiless logic required to tackle a virus. In nervous times like these, governments need to appear resolved, determined – and err on the side of caution. 

Their actions must be firm, decisive and logical because otherwise the public will see the flaws in their responses

Call me cynical, but I suspect the UK rescue airlift announced yesterday owes more to stranded and desperate Britons telephoning in to BBC radio stations from Wuhan claiming to have been abandoned by the British Embassy than by any logical scientific thinking.

Medics attending to patients at the Central Hospital of Wuhan on Saturday. An estimated 200 Britons stranded in Wuhan will be flown back on condition they sign a contract agreeing to be held in isolation for 14 days at a yet unnamed location

Medics attending to patients at the Central Hospital of Wuhan on Saturday. An estimated 200 Britons stranded in Wuhan will be flown back on condition they sign a contract agreeing to be held in isolation for 14 days at a yet unnamed location

To give just one example of the inconsistency: on Tuesday medical staff in Birmingham were photographed dressed in full hazard body suits after a resident who had returned from China complained of feeling ill. 

It was the sort of garb associated with outbreaks of the ebola virus in West Africa.

Yet at the time those photographs were taken, Britons were still flying into London from China and being told to go home to ‘self-isolate’. 

This was clearly fatuous. If the virus is sufficiently virulent and transmissible to force paramedics to suit up, how can it be safe for passengers who have visited a viral hotspot to fly home on a commercial jet, and return to their own towns and villages?

Tomorrow, the estimated 200 Britons stranded in Wuhan will be flown back on condition they sign a contract agreeing to be held in isolation for 14 days at a yet unnamed location, presumably a military base kitted out with appropriate medical equipment.

Medical staff wearing protective clothing to protect against the coronavirus arrive with a patient at the Wuhan Red Cross Hospital in Wuhan on Saturday

Medical staff wearing protective clothing to protect against the coronavirus arrive with a patient at the Wuhan Red Cross Hospital in Wuhan on Saturday

But I worry the journey home is reckless in itself. We do not yet know exactly the means of transmission. Mixing healthy and potentially infected passengers in an aluminium tube for a long-distance flight is the worst thing to do. 

I also fear whatever pledges returning Britons make, some will be released, and this mercy flight home could prove a leaky sieve for transmission.

I am alarmed by a case reported on Tuesday in the New England Journal of Medicine. A Chinese man with some health problems flew to Vietnam to visit his son. 

Four days later the father fell ill with the coronavirus. Three days later, the son, healthy and in his twenties, also tested positive.

The case is alarming as the virus was transmitted from father to healthy son through casual contact. They had also travelled by plane and train through four Vietnamese cities, and at least 28 individuals with potential close contacts with them were identified.

No one can know if any of those contacts has become infected. And this is just one example of a single traveller who left the virus hotspot. 

Similar cases are now being played out thousands or tens of thousands of times a day in China, wider Asia, and the rest of the world. It is a chilling thought.

Experts say the difficulty of containing the coronavirus is that so many patients have mild, cold-like symptoms and don't realise they have the infection – but it can quickly turn deadly

Experts say the difficulty of containing the coronavirus is that so many patients have mild, cold-like symptoms and don’t realise they have the infection – but it can quickly turn deadly

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