BRITS airlifted from virus-striken China will now be quarantined in a “secure facility” for two weeks on their return, according to Government sources.
In an escalation of safety measures, officials said all evacuees will be isolated – potentially on a military base – even if they aren’t showing symptoms of coronavirus.
Up to 200 Brits are expected to be flown back from Wuhan, the centre of the deadly outbreak, in the coming days.
The Department of Health had previously said apparently well people could go home and “self-isolate” to limit the spread of the infection.
But Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, wants everyone being flown back from the virus-hit parts of China to be housed in a secure facility for 14 days.
A health source said: “They are not just going to have their temperature checked then sent on their way.
“They will be quarantined in a secure facility for the 14 day incubation period, regardless of whether they are showing symptoms or not.”
He confirmed the policy this morning, saying in a tweet: “We are working hard to get British nationals back from Wuhan.
“Public safety is the top priority.
“Anyone who returns from Wuhan will be safely isolated for 14 days, with all necessary medical attention.”
It comes as British Airways has suspended all flights to and from mainland China as the Government finalises urgent plans to bring Britons back from the coronavirus-hit province of Hubei.
The airline, which operates daily flights to Shanghai and Beijing from Heathrow, said it was halting the flights with immediate effect after the Foreign Office warned against “all but essential travel” to the country because of the virus outbreak.
Virgin Atlantic said its flights between Heathrow and Shanghai will continue to operate as scheduled but passengers can rebook or get a refund.
A British lecturer stranded in Wuhan city, who described the streets as “deserted”, said UK officials have confirmed a flight will take citizens back to England, while others said this would be on Thursday.
The deadline for those stuck in the city of Wuhan and surrounding areas to contact the British consulate expressing their wish to leave passed at 3am UK time (11am local time).
In a statement on Wednesday morning, British Airways said: “We have suspended all flights to and from mainland China with immediate effect following advice from the Foreign Office against all but essential travel.
“We apologise to customers for the inconvenience, but the safety of our customers and crew is always our priority.
“Customers due to travel to or from China in the coming days can find more information on ba.com.”
It comes after the Foreign Office updated its advice on Tuesday to warn against “all but essential travel” to mainland China, saying it may become more difficult for British nationals in other provinces to leave.
Up to 200 UK citizens are expected to want to fly home from Hubei province.
The Government had previously advised them to “self-isolate” for 14 days after they arrive in the UK, but said there were no plans to forcibly quarantine them.
Kharn Lambert, whose 81-year-old grandmother Veronica Theobold, has been stranded in Wuhan with a dwindling supply of medicine for her lung condition, said she was booked on a flight on Thursday.
He said: “We’re not sure what time the flight will leave yet. She got a seat almost straight away because of her condition.
“She is relieved, so am I, but she’s frustrated with the restrictions being put in place. She can only take 15kg of hand luggage and she came here with about 30kg of stuff.
“She also has to make her own way from the airport in London to Lancaster and then self-isolate for 14 days.
“That’s after she potentially comes into contact with hundreds of people on her way – it is ludicrous.”
Where did coronavirus start? From bats to snakes – the theories on deadly virus’ origins
The killer coronavirus was spread from bats to snakes to humans, experts have claimed.
An outbreak of the virus is understood to have started at an open air fish market in the Chinese city of Wuhan – which has since been put in lockdown after 25 people died and more than 600 people were infected globally.
A new study published in the China Science Bulletin this week claimed that the new coronavirus shared a strain of virus found in bats.
Previous deadly outbreaks of SARS and Ebola were also believed to have originated in the flying mammal.
Experts had thought the new virus wasn’t capable of causing an epidemic as serious as those outbreaks because its genes were different.
But this latest research appeared to prove otherwise – as scientists scrabble to produce a vaccine.
Lecturer Yvonne Griffiths, who is currently in a hotel in Wuhan, said she received news in the early hours of Wednesday morning that there is to be a flight from Wuhan airport to England.
She told BBC Breakfast that Stansted is a possible destination, but that has not been confirmed and timings had not been been firmed up either.
“And we’ve to be on stand-by so that we can go to the airport very early,” she said.
“We’ve to be there six to seven hours before the flight leaves, and we would have a screening from some health people here in Wuhan, and if we are not showing any symptoms then we’ll be able to board that plane.
“If we were to be suffering temperature or any other symptoms, breathing problems, then there seems to be a possibility of quarantining at this end.”
The lecturer told the programme: “It has been frustrating up until today. I think the lack of certainty about the time of this flight isn’t so worrying as long as we know that it’s going to happen.
“Prior to that, we had quite a long period of silence from the UK Government about whether there was going to be any contingency plan to get people home.”
A British teacher living in Wuhan, who asked not to be named, said that a number of other Britons she was in contact with had arranged to return home, with some scheduled on a flight at 7am on Thursday.
Death toll climbs
The death toll in China from coronavirus has risen to 132, with confirmed infections surging to nearly 6,000.
Four cases have been confirmed in Germany, making it the second European country to report cases, after France.
In Australia, officials unveiled plans to evacuate its nationals from Wuhan and the surrounding Hubei province, with plans to quarantine them in the Christmas Island immigration detention centre.
The Department of Health and Social Care said on Tuesday that 97 people in the UK have been given the all-clear for the virus, although scientists predict it may have already entered the country.
Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab has said officials are “working urgently” to get Britons out of Hubei province.
He added: “Due to the increasing travel restrictions and the public health situation, we now advise against all but essential travel to China.”
In a statement, the researchers said: “The Wuhan coronavirus’ natural host could be bats … but between bats and humans there may be an unknown intermediate.”
Meanwhile, scientists at Peking University also claim that the deadly virus was passed to humans from bats – but say it was through a mutation in snakes.
The researchers said that the new strain is made up of a combination of one that affects bats and another unknown coronavirus.
They believe that combined genetic material from both bats and this unknown strain picked up a protein that allows viruses bind to certain host cells – including those of humans.
After analysing the genes of the strains the team found that snakes were susceptible to the most similar version of the coronavirus.
It meant that they likely provided a “reservoir” for the viral strain to grow stronger and replicate.
Snakes are sold at the Huanan Seafood Market in central Wuhan and may have jumped to other animals before passing to humans, they claim.
But a senior researcher at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, who asked not to be named, said the findings should be treated with caution.
He told the South China Morning Post: “It is based on calculation by a computer model.
“Whether it will match what happens in real life is inconclusive.
“The binding protein is important, but it is just one of the many things under investigation. There may be other proteins involved.”
The expert believes that the new strain was an RNA virus, meaning that its mutation speed was 100 times faster than that of a DNA virus such as smallpox.