England’s chief medical officer has warned it is “just a matter of time” until coronavirus spreads in the UK, as the number of confirmed cases in the country jumped to 16.

Three people tested positive for Covid-19 in the UK on Thursday, including the first confirmed case in Northern Ireland.

Experts have warned of school closures and cancelled sporting events as the disease spreads across the globe.

Professor Chris Whitty, chief medical officer, said on Thursday that there could be a “social cost” if the virus intensifies, including school closures for more than two months.

He told the Nuffield Trust summit: “One of the things that’s really clear with this virus, much more so than flu, is that anything we do we’re going to have to do for quite a long period of time, probably more than two months.”

The Northern Ireland patient had recently returned from northern Italy, while a parent at a primary school in Derbyshire contracted the virus in Tenerife, where 168 Britons are being kept in a hotel on the south west of the island.

Countries with confirmed cases of coronavirus

Burbage Primary School in Buxton remains closed after the adult was diagnosed with the illness and Buxton Medical Practice, a two-minute drive from the school, also urged patients not to attend for appointments on Thursday due to the confirmed case.

The third patient also contracted the virus in Italy, which has become the worst affected country in Europe with at least 650 cases and 15 deaths.

Speaking at a press conference in Belfast, Dr Michael McBride, chief medical officer for Northern Ireland, said: “We have been planning for the first positive case in Northern Ireland and have made clear that it was a question of when not if.

“We have robust infection control measures in place which enable us to respond immediately.

“Our health service is used to managing infections and would assure the public that we are prepared.”

A special unit has been established at the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast for isolating those suffering from the virus but the health authorities were unable to confirm where the patient is being treated.

One of the patients in England has been taken to the specialist infectious diseases centre at the Royal Liverpool Hospital and the other to the Royal Free Hospital in London.

Meanwhile, 168 Britons remain confined to the H10 Costa Adeje Palace in Tenerife after at least four guests were diagnosed with coronavirus.

Sources told the PA news agency that around 50 of the Britons will be allowed to leave if they wish.

The Minister of Health in Tenerife said around 130 guests from 11 different countries will be able to leave the hotel if they arrived on Monday, after infected guests had already left.

Airline Jet2 has said it will not fly back any people who have been staying at the hotel until they have tested negative for the illness.

The airline said on Thursday night: “We will not fly any customer who has stayed at the H10 Costa Adeje Palace during the quarantine, until this incubation period has passed or unless they have been explicitly tested for COVID-19 by a recognised authority and are confirmed as clear of the virus.”

Two Britons were among eight people being monitored on board a cruise ship that was turned back by the Dominican Republic.

A joint statement by the Public Health Ministry and Port Authority on the island said the captain of the Braemar, which is carrying around 1,500 people, reported four Filipinos, two British citizens and two US citizens were under medical observation for symptoms such as fever, coughing, or breathing difficulty.

So far in the UK, 7,690 people have been tested for the virus and of the 16 to have tested positive, eight have so far been discharged from hospital.

In China, where the virus originated, 78,497 cases have been reported, including 2,744 deaths.

World Health Organisation (WHO) director-general Dr Tedros Ghebreyesus told a press conference in Geneva on Thursday that coronavirus has the potential to become a global pandemic but this stage had not been reached.

Public health advice remains to wash hands with soap, not rub the face and maintain a distance from people who are coughing and sneezing, he said.