Wuhan Coronavirus

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:22 pm on 3rd February 2020.

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Photo of Matthew Hancock Matthew Hancock Secretary of State for Health and Social Care 4:22 pm, 3rd February 2020

Nick? It is not “Room 101”, Mr Speaker.

With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to update the House on the ongoing situation with the Wuhan coronavirus. On Friday, the chief medical officer announced that two patients in England who are members of the same family tested positive for coronavirus. They were transferred to a specialist unit in Newcastle, where they are being cared for by expert staff. Public Health England is now contacting people who had close contact with these two confirmed cases. Close contacts will be given health advice about symptoms and emergency contact details to use, should they become unwell in the next 14 days. These tried and tested methods of infection control will ensure that we minimise the risk to the public.

On Friday, a Foreign Office-chartered aircraft carrying 83 British nationals left Wuhan for the UK, and I want to thank all those involved in that operation, including staff at my own Department, the Foreign Office, Border Force, the Ministry of Defence and military medics, as well as all the NHS staff, officials at Public Health England and many more who have worked 24/7 on our response so far.

Yesterday, we brought back a further 11 people via France, and returned UK nationals have been transferred to off-site NHS accommodation at Arrowe Park Hospital on the Wirral, where they will spend 14 days in supported quarantine as a precautionary measure. I thank all the staff there who have done so much to make that possible. There, they will have access to a specialist medical team who will regularly assess their symptoms. In addition, one British national has been taken to a separate NHS facility for testing.

We will take a belt-and-braces approach that makes public protection the absolute top priority, from a virus that is increasingly spreading across the world. As of today, there are more than 17,000 diagnosed cases in mainland China, with a further 185 in other countries, including France, Germany and the United States. There have been 362 fatalities so far. The World Health Organisation has now declared the situation a public health emergency of international concern, and the UK chief medical officers have raised the risk level to the UK from low to moderate. We are working closely with the WHO and international partners to ensure that we are ready for all eventualities.

Health Ministers from G7 countries spoke this afternoon, and agreed to co-ordinate our evidence and response wherever possible. The number of cases is currently doubling around every five days, and it is clear that the virus will be with us for at least some months to come; this is a marathon, not a sprint. On existing evidence, most cases are mild and most people recover. Nevertheless, anyone who has travelled from Wuhan or Hubei province in the last 14 days should immediately contact NHS 111 to inform the health service of their recent travel, and should stay indoors and avoid contact with other people just as they would with the flu—even if there are no symptoms. Anyone who has travelled to the UK from mainland China in the past 14 days and is experiencing a cough, fever or shortness of breath should self-isolate and call NHS 111, even if symptoms are mild.

We will do all we can to tackle this virus. We are one of the first countries in the world to develop a new test for it. Testing worldwide is being done on equipment designed in Oxford, and today I am making £20 million available to the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations to speed up the development of a vaccine. I can announce that Public Health England has sequenced the viral genome from the first two positive cases in the UK, and is today making that sequence available to the scientific community. Its findings suggest that the virus has not evolved in the last month. We have also launched a public information campaign, setting out how every member of the public, including Members of this House, can help by taking simple steps to minimise the risk to themselves and their families: washing hands and using tissues when they sneeze, just as they would with flu. That goes for all of us.

We remain vigilant and determined to tackle this virus with well-developed plans in place. I commend this statement to the House.