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Wuhan Coronavirus

Volume 670: debated on Thursday 23 January 2020

With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to inform the House about the outbreak of a new coronavirus in China and the UK’s response to protect the British public. As of this morning, 571 cases have been confirmed by the Chinese Government, and 17 people are reported to have died of this new strain of respiratory illness. All the fatalities have so far been contained to mainland China. However, this is a rapidly developing situation and the number of cases, and deaths, is likely to be higher than those that have been confirmed so far. I expect them to rise further. It has been reported that the Chinese authorities have placed further transport restrictions on the epicentre of the outbreak, Wuhan city, including on international flights. A small number of cases of the new coronavirus have now been detected in other countries, including Thailand, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and the United States. Experts at the World Health Organisation are meeting again today to determine whether this new outbreak now constitutes a “public health emergency of international concern”.

Most cases of the new coronavirus so far have been non-fatal. In these cases, most people experience cold and flu-like symptoms and then recover. However, there have been a small number of cases so far where it has proven more serious and fatal.

There are no confirmed cases of this new infection in the UK so far. We have been closely monitoring the situation in Wuhan and have put in place proportionate precautionary measures. Our approach has at all times been guided by the advice of the chief medical officer, Professor Chris Whitty. Since yesterday, Public Health England officials have been carrying out enhanced monitoring of direct flights from Wuhan city, and all passengers on direct flights from China will receive information on what to do if they fall ill. Professor Whitty and Public Health England, aided by independent experts, are in close contact with their international counterparts, and are continually monitoring the scientific evidence as it emerges.

The chief medical officer has revised the risk to the UK population from “very low” to “low”, and has concluded that while there is an increased likelihood that cases may arise in this country, we are well prepared and well equipped to deal with them. The UK is one of the first countries to have developed a world-leading test for the new coronavirus. The NHS is ready to respond appropriately to any cases that emerge. Clinicians in both primary and secondary care have already received advice, covering initial detection and investigation of possible cases, infection prevention and control, and clinical diagnostics. Acting on the advice of Professor Whitty, we have updated our travel guidance to British citizens to advise against all but essential travel to Wuhan city.

We are working closely with our counterparts in the devolved Administrations. The public can be assured that the whole of the UK is always well prepared for these types of outbreaks, and we will remain vigilant and keep our response under constant review in the light of emerging scientific evidence.

I commend this statement to the House.

I thank the Secretary of State for an advance copy of his statement, and for updating the House this morning.

The coronavirus is indeed very concerning, and I am grateful for the work of Public Health England and the Department on it so far, especially in screening passengers on direct flights from Wuhan. However, a passenger arriving from Wuhan yesterday said that he had gone through virtually no screening, but was given a leaflet. Does the Secretary of State have any response to that?

Will flights from other Chinese cities, not just Wuhan, be monitored, and when does the Minister think monitoring might begin? Will there be specific traveller advice for UK citizens travelling into China who have existing conditions that may mean they need to take more care?

As the Minister said, Public Health England has assessed the risk of the coronavirus being spread to the UK as “low”. In the event of the virus spreading to the UK, are there contingency plans and funds to prevent further spreading, to deal with the scale of the problem?

As the Minister knows, we are in the middle of flu season, so I do not want to cause any undue anxiety, especially as—as we have heard—there are no cases in the UK at the moment, but can he please advise people watching who may be concerned about their own symptoms of what they should do?

We all know that the NHS has a tremendous record in responding to similar incidents, such as Ebola and monkeypox. We can certainly be proud of our public health record in these areas and can be confident in how public health bodies will respond to this incident. There is a chance that a global pandemic can be avoided if Governments across the world take the right measures in a timely fashion.

I thank the Minister for his update today, and would be grateful if he provided some further clarity on all the points I have raised.

I appreciate the cross-party approach that is being taken to this outbreak, as reflected in the shadow Minister’s remarks. I shall address the specific points that she raised. On the reports from the flight that arrived yesterday, it is important that we get the enhanced monitoring right. The challenge is that symptoms for the Wuhan novel coronavirus do not usually appear until five to seven days, and sometimes up to 14 days, after a person has been infected, and therefore the advice is that the most important part of the monitoring is to ensure that everybody knows what to do if the symptoms arise, because often the symptoms will not be there for somebody on the flight. Having said that, we do not expect further flights from Wuhan, because the Chinese authorities have taken steps to stop travel out of the city.

The hon. Lady asked whether we will be monitoring flights from other Chinese cities or, indeed, from anywhere else. The current evidence suggests that the vast majority of cases are in Wuhan. Obviously we keep that under constant review, and we will not hesitate to take further steps, if necessary, to protect the British public.

We have a big and vibrant Chinese community and a very large Chinese community centre in Harlow. What information is being sent to such Chinese community centres? Many members of the Chinese community have relatives in Hong Kong, so what will be done if this disease reaches Hong Kong?

There is evidence of potential cases of the coronavirus in Hong Kong, although the vast majority of cases are in Wuhan city. We will keep that under review.

The advice to my right hon. Friend’s Chinese residents is exactly the same as the advice to all, which is to avoid anything but essential travel to Wuhan city and that direct flights from Wuhan city appear to have ceased. An awful lot of people who work for Public Health England are already in Harlow, with more to come. I am sure he would want to join me in thanking them for the vigilant work they are undertaking.

It is obvious that the scale of this operation should not be underestimated. Shutting down a city the size of London as it prepares to celebrate Chinese new year is an extraordinary undertaking. What support has the international community offered to the Chinese authorities, particularly the health services, as they cope with this unprecedented strain on resources?

Some of my questions have already been asked, so I will just ask about the World Health Organisation, which is meeting today. What communication have the UK Government had with the WHO? Can the Secretary of State assure the House that the Government will remain updated, in real time, on developments and on what steps, if any, are required in the UK?

Finally, I have a number of Chinese constituents, as we probably all have, and English is difficult for many of them. When we give information to Chinese communities in the UK, is it provided in different languages?

Yes, the advice will be available today in Mandarin and Cantonese. The UK is heavily engaged in the WHO response and, of course, we are engaging with the Chinese Government. That engagement principally happens through the WHO, which has well-established procedures to make sure we understand the nature of the outbreak so that scientists can investigate the epidemiology and come to an evolving scientific analysis of what is happening. We then base our decisions, as much as possible, on the scientific advice that flows from that. The chief medical officer, who is an expert on these issues, is co-ordinating the work here in the UK.

Many UK universities, not least my local Huddersfield University, have strong links with the Wuhan University of Science and Technology. What particular advice is the Secretary of State’s Department giving to UK universities, particularly those with a large Chinese student population?

We are not giving them specific advice. We are giving the same advice to everybody, which is to avoid all non-essential travel to Wuhan, but I am happy to take away the point that we should communicate, through Universities UK, with all UK universities to make sure the message gets to students directly so that they hear the advice that is there for everybody, which is to avoid all but essential travel.

My thoughts go out to all the residents of Wuhan, Manchester’s sister city. Sadly, the news of this outbreak could not have come at a worse time, as residents are preparing to celebrate the lunar new year. What more can the Secretary of State do, in light of our expertise in coronaviruses, to support the Chinese Government? We have a sizeable Chinese community in Manchester, so we should raise awareness in this country.

I will ensure that the authorities in Manchester are fully apprised of, and keep up to date with, our advice, which, as I say, is based on the best scientific evidence, to make sure that Manchester and its sister city deal with this as well and as appropriately as they can.

I thank my right hon. Friend for the comprehensive update and, in particular, for the detail on the test the UK has developed for the coronavirus. What consular assistance is being provided to British nationals caught up in affected areas in China and elsewhere?

My hon. Friend raises an important question. There are approximately 11 million people in Wuhan city, including British nationals. As far as we know, we have two UK staff in our consulate in Wuhan and 15 locally employed staff. Of course we are ensuring that they get all the support they need, and they are available to provide consular assistance to British nationals in Wuhan city.

The House appreciates the fact that the Secretary of State has come here so promptly to make this statement. Of course we all hope that an outbreak here does not happen, but what is the current advice to members of the public about the use of face masks if it does? One thing about these outbreaks is that people look at what measures are being taken and what people are doing in countries where the disease has taken hold, and then ask the authorities here, “Why aren’t we doing the same?” It would be helpful to know this in anticipation; presumably it will come from guidance given by the chief medical officer.

That is right. We have well-established procedures for dealing with a potential outbreak such as this, be it of flu or a coronavirus. Our advice at the moment to the UK public is that the risk is low—of course we will keep that under review. We try very much only to put forward proposals that are clinically appropriate. The wearing of face masks is not deemed clinically necessary now. Of course we keep that under review, and we will be guided by the science.

I thank the Secretary of State for the comprehensive update. We know that scientists are already working hard to find a vaccine for this newly identified strain of coronavirus. Given the importance of vaccines in combating serious diseases such as this, does he agree that education about vaccines is more important than ever in this age of disinformation? What conversations has he had with colleagues to combat fake news on vaccines?

The hon. Lady makes an incredibly important point, on which I wholly concur in the round: vaccines are incredibly important and valuable. We have a long-established process for working out where we should vaccinate. In this case, because of the nature of the virus, it is unlikely that a vaccine is going to be available—there is not one now—so that is not the route we should be looking at, but of course we will keep that under review. On her general point, when advised to take a vaccine, such as the flu vaccine for the winter or the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine for children, people should vaccinate, because it is both good for them and good for their neighbour.

I thank the Secretary of State for the statement. In Hull, including in my constituency, we have a lot of Chinese students. I just want to be clear about the advice being given to anyone worried about symptoms that might develop, as he said that that might happen up to 14 days after arriving in the UK. What advice should those students be given about what to do and who to contact?

Anybody with concerns, be they a student in Hull or elsewhere, should contact their doctor. As the first port of call, 24 hours a day, they can call NHS 111, which has clinical advice available around the clock. All the 111 contact centres have been updated and will be kept updated with the most appropriate advice.

First, may I thank the Secretary of State for his statement and his clear commitment? Throughout the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, people like you and me, Mr Speaker—you are a type 1 diabetic and I am a type 2 diabetic—have a chronic disease. Those who are diabetic and many others across the United Kingdom worry about the killer impact of this virus.

I note that the United States of America has diverted flights to specific screening areas. I am sure that the Minister and many others in the House saw the news this morning, as I did. On the flight that arrived this morning, there were three different opinions among those coming off the plane: one said that they had had no advice or discussion whatsoever; the second one got a leaflet; and the third one said that they had some tests done before they left China. So it seems that mixed messages are coming out. It is important that we have a clear policy and that everyone flying here and every person here feels assured.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. We had a divert in place for that flight to ensure that it went to a part of Heathrow where there are the procedures and processes to be able to deal with this issue. There was enhanced monitoring of that flight— not all of that is immediately obvious to the passengers themselves. Crucially, we understand that the Chinese Government have stopped future flights. We will of course keep all that under review.