The British government’s surprise announcement telling Britons to leave China “if they can” comes amid mounting international concern about the spread of the coronavirus.
But the advice came with no detailed guidance about why the UK’s position has changed – making it unclear whether this was a political stance, or one based on new medical guidance that British authorities have not shared publicly.
Other governments have cautioned against travel to China, or barred travellers who have made a recent visit. But the UK is the first country to advise its citizens leave China, suggesting even greater concerns about the virus.
It is almost certain to anger Chinese authorities, who have already strongly criticised American and Australian bans on travellers from China entering the respective countries. It also puts tens of thousands of Britons living in China in an extremely difficult position.Quick guide
What is the coronavirus and should we be worried?
What is the virus causing illness in Wuhan?
It is 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.
What are the symptoms of the Wuhan coronavirus?
The virus causes pneumonia. Those who have fallen ill are reported to suffer coughs, fever and breathing difficulties. In severe cases there can be organ failure. As this is viral pneumonia, antibiotics are of no use. The antiviral drugs we have against flu will not work. If people are admitted to hospital, they may get support for their lungs and other organs as well as fluids. Recovery will depend on the strength of their immune system. Many of those who have died are known to have been already in poor health.
Is the virus being transmitted from one person to another?
Human to human transmission has been confirmed by China’s national health commission. As of 3 February, 361 people have died in China, and one in the Philippines. Confirmed infections in China are 17,238, and the official Chinese figures include Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau. Outside of China, infections stand at more than 150.
Two members of one family have been confirmed to have the virus in the UK, after more than 160 were tested and found negative. The actual number to have contracted the virus could be far higher as people with mild symptoms may not have been detected. Modelling by World Health Organization (WHO) experts at Imperial College London suggests there could be as many as 100,000 cases, with uncertainty putting the margins between 30,000 and 200,000.
How worried are the experts?
There were fears that the coronavirus might spread more widely during the week-long lunar new year holidays, which start on 24 January, when millions of Chinese travel home to celebrate, but the festivities have largely been cancelled and Wuhan and other Chinese cities are in lockdown.
At what point should you go to the doctor if you have a cough, say?
Unless you have recently travelled to China or been in contact with someone infected with the virus, then you should treat any cough or cold symptoms as normal. The NHS advises that there is generally no need to visit a doctor for a cough unless it is persistent or you are having other symptoms such as chest pain, difficulty breathing or you feel very unwell.
Should we panic?
No. The spread of the virus outside China is worrying but not an unexpected development. It increases the likelihood that the World Health Organization will declare the outbreak to be a public health emergency of international concern on Thursday evening. The key concerns are how transmissible this new coronavirus is between people and what proportion become severely ill and end up in hospital.
Sarah Boseley Health editor and Hannah Devlin
For many, a decision to leave could have significant personal, financial and professional ramifications, as it seems increasingly likely that the outbreak may last weeks or even months, so any absence would be long-term.
Those who have set up or run businesses may worry about how they will operate without key staff. Students may be penalised for leaving a course if they need credits towards a degree, employees with contracts may be penalised for breaking them.
Families with children in school may not be able to find them a place to study in the UK – or elsewhere – at short notice.
Those whose relatives don’t hold UK passports are likely to be particularly anxious, after watching the confusion over who would be allowed to leave Wuhan, the epicentre of the virus outbreak, on evacuation flights.
The British government has not said if it will offer any financial support with leaving, any guidance on whether insurers might cover some costs, or advice on whether dependents could get fast-track help with paperwork to come to the UK.
Nor is it clear what support – if any – the government will be willing or able to offer those who decide to stay on despite the latest advice. It has already reduced diplomatic staff and warned that its support for citizens in China could be affected.
Today’s decision effectively leaves tens of thousands of people forced to weigh up a decision with huge consequences – without any real understanding of why they are being urged to leave now.
Those who were in the quarantined epicentre of the outbreak, Wuhan, have already been evacuated. Those who are left are likely to be asking if the UK authorities know or suspect the coronavirus is spreading widely elsewhere.