Tests for coronavirus on 14 people in the UK have come back negative but checks are being carried out on other people, the chief medical officer has said.

Prof Chris Whitty made the announcement on Friday after the Cobra emergency committee met to discuss the threat to the UK and the government sought to calm concerns over the virus, emphasising that the risk to the public was limited.

Prof Paul Cosford, emeritus medical director at Public Health England, said it was still “early days” in the course of the virus and stressed that most of those affected in other countries were making a good recovery.

However, he said, it was highly likely that cases would be seen in the UK.

Hancock said the risk to the UK public remained low.

“The clinical advice is that the risk to the public remains low and the chief medical officer will be making a full statement later today,” he said as he left the Cabinet Office.

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. Chinese authorities initially played down Sars cases, and were subsequently much criticised because the virus spread to 37 countries, causing global panic, infecting more than 8,000 people and killing more than 750. Mers appears to be less easily passed from human to human, but is more deadly, killing 35% of about 2,500 people who have been infected.

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. As this is viral pneumonia, antibiotics are of no use. Antiviral drugs may be used, but usually only lessen the severity of symptoms. 

Is the virus being transmitted from one person to another?

China’s health ministry has confirmed human-to-human transmission. As of 24 January the Chinese authorities had acknowledged 830 infections and 26 deaths. Those who have died are known to have been already in poor health – but mild cases may not be reported at all.

How worried are the experts?

There are fears that the coronavirus may spread during the Chinese new year holidays at the end of January, when millions of people travel home. As a result, China has put more than 33 million people on lockdown. At the moment, it appears that people in poor health are at greatest risk, as is always the case with flu. But the authorities will be worried the virus could become more potent and will be keen to stop the spread.

Sarah Boseley Health editor

Cosford told the Today programme earlier on Friday that contingency plans were ready should cases be detected.

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“I think it’s highly likely that we will have cases in the UK, and of course every so often we do get new infections coming from the animal kingdom, such as this one,” he said.

“We do have a whole range of plans ready to go when that is the case and these are being implemented now so our systems are ready to diagnose somebody if they do come to the UK and have this infection. And of course the NHS is prepared to treat people, if they have this infection.”

The Scottish government confirmed on Thursday that five people were being tested after presenting with symptoms of the illness, and it is understood another patient was tested at Belfast’s Royal Victoria hospital.

Two of those being tested in Scotland had been diagnosed with flu after travelling to Wuhan in China, the origin of the global outbreak.

Downing Street said four of the five suspected cases in Scotland were believed to involve Chinese nationals.

The official death toll in China has risen to 26 with more than 830 confirmed cases.



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