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Wuhan Novel Coronavirus: UK Citizens

Volume 801: debated on Thursday 30 January 2020

Private Notice Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what measures are in place to contain the Wuhan novel coronavirus (WN-CoV) in the United Kingdom and what plans are in place from British citizens returning from China and other affected areas.

My Lords, the NHS is always ready to provide world-class care to patients, whether they have a common illness or an infectious disease never seen here before. As a precaution, we are asking anyone in the UK who has returned from Wuhan in the last 14 days to self-isolate. The FCO is working to make available an option for British nationals to leave Hubei province.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for her response and for attending the House at short notice. It is essential that the Government be robust in their messaging and that remedial actions be taken to reduce the possibility of fear through ignorance. They should consider all eventualities, including whether, in the extreme, core elements of government should be placed in lockdown. Would the Minister study and consider replicating the helpful advice that came out of the Canadian ministry of health regarding what citizenry should do in all circumstances, with dos and don’ts?

I am very happy to look at the advisory from the Canadian Government. I hold in high regard the CMO from that nation, whom I have met. The action that this Government have taken in putting in place enhanced measures at ports and giving advice to nationals has been proportionate but robust. So far, we can be pleased that all of the 131 cases tested for in the UK have been negative.

My Lords, I underline the support from these Benches for the plans for organised quarantine. Both the medical evidence on the incubation period and the limited evidence of spread from people not yet showing symptoms highlight the need for this. Keeping evacuated people together is important. We also strongly support the recognition by government that dealing with this is a top priority, and give our praise and thanks to the medical, public health and NHS staff who are working hard to ensure that preparations are in place in the UK.

Can the Minister explain a little more about the evacuation arrangements and what discussions have taken place? What discussions has the UK had with the World Health Organization on difficulties with evacuation? Can the Minister advise what action the Government are taking to ensure the safety and welfare of British nationals stranded in Wuhan due to the delay in evacuation if they are unable to board a flight as they display symptoms of the virus? Those who make it on board will have to sign contracts agreeing to the 14-day quarantine at an NHS facility on their return to make sure that they do not have symptoms of the virus. What staffing resources will be available to carry out quarantine and screening procedures? What happens if various people refuse to sign the contract? Clearly, these teams will be of great importance in preventing the spread of the virus to the UK. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

I thank the noble Baroness for her extensive questions. We are doing everything we can to get British people in Wuhan safely back to the UK. A number of countries’ flights have been unable to take off as planned. We will continue working urgently to organise the flight to the UK as soon as possible. We are working with British nationals who wish to leave and we are developing a package for them once they arrive. The plane will have medical staff on board to assess and manage the passengers; obviously, this is on the direct advice of and with support from our Chief Medical Officer, who has specific expertise in this area. A team from Public Health England and the NHS will meet passengers, and any passengers who have developed symptoms will be assessed and transferred to NHS care, as appropriate. Asymptomatic passengers will be transferred to an isolation centre; we do not want to provide details on that at this stage. We are working with the Chinese authorities to unlock the issues to allow the plane to take off.

My Lords, more than 120,000 Chinese students study in the UK. Can my noble friend the Minister say what support and advice the Government are giving to both students and universities?

Public Health England is doing a superb job in providing very clear advice for all those who may be concerned—either those who have relatives in China or those who feel as though they have been exposed. I encourage anybody with concerns to look to Public Health England for the most accurate and up-to-date advice; it is updated on a very regular basis. That is the place to go for the most accurate and clinically validated advice.

My Lords, the Question from the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, asked about British citizens returning from China and other affected areas. The Minister has concentrated her replies on Wuhan and Hubei province. Yesterday, Dr Michael Ryan, the executive director of the World Health Organization Health Emergencies Programme, said:

“The whole world needs to be on alert now, the whole world needs to take action and be ready for any cases that come, either from the original epicentre or from other epicentres that become established.”

What advice is being given to people coming from other countries where there are already reported cases?

The noble Baroness is quite right. At the moment, there are 5,974 cases in mainland China and 6,064 cases globally, and there have been 132 deaths. It is important to understand that coronavirus is a large family of viruses, ranging from the common cold to much more severe diseases, such as MERS. The data we have puts the mortality rate at about 3%, so the risk is comparatively low compared with SARS and MERS. I just want to say that at this point.

In terms of wider travel advice, the FCO is now advising against all travel to Hubei province and all non-essential travel to China, and is advising British citizens to leave if they are able to do so. Wider public health advice for those travelling around the region can be seen on the Public Health England website. It is very clear and detailed. Any further advice on travel can be seen on the Foreign Office website. We are co-ordinating very closely; indeed, there was a COBRA meeting on this issue just yesterday.

My Lords, can the Minister clarify that Public Health England is working closely with the other three public health departments in the UK and is taking the lead on this for people who are returning? Further, what is our strategy for Hong Kong, where nurses have said today that they will go on strike unless the borders between mainland China and Hong Kong are closed in order to protect the population?

The noble Baroness is quite right: all the public health authorities across the United Kingdom will work closely together to ensure clear co-ordination, as always happens on public health issues. On Hong Kong, we will be discussing those issues through the WHO, which met yesterday to consider whether WN-CoV should be declared a public health emergency of international concern. It did not declare a PHEIC yesterday, but it will meet again. If it does declare a PHEIC, we will of course review our recommendations. However, we should be confident about the actions that we have taken. They are measured, proportionate and based on the highest level of scientific and clinical advice available at this stage of the outbreak from the Chief Medical Officer and Public Health England. We will keep the situation under continuous review and report to the House as it develops.

My Lords, the Minister has emphasised that the arrangements will be for British citizens. If a British citizen is married to a Chinese citizen, perhaps with children who hold British passports, will the whole family, including the Chinese citizen, be eligible to come to this country?

My noble friend has raised an important point. While the UK is one of the first countries outside China to have developed a prototype laboratory test for this novel disease, there is as yet no vaccine. The WHO is co-ordinating the research effort in this area and is producing an R&D road map. As a nation we are actively involved in this because we have particular capabilities here. We will be contributing to a co-ordinated global effort not only to improve the diagnostics but to develop vaccine capabilities.

My Lords, has the Minister seen the report this morning from the AFP saying that Russia has closed its borders with China? Does that not add to the need for the World Health Organization to declare this a world health emergency? Are we in discussions with it about that?

I think I have already made the point that we are in constant dialogue with the World Health Organization regarding all aspects of the response to this outbreak. That dialogue includes the declaration of a PHEIC, which would include a number of different elements, and the organisation is meeting on that today.