Current estimates indicate that some 7700 people have been infected and that 170 people have died from the flu-like illness, which originated in the Chinese city of Wuhan. Authorities have locked down several cities in the Hubei province. The outbreak has surpassed the SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) outbreak of 2002 and 2003, which infected more than 8000 people and killed an estimated 774.

An Imperial College report states the cases have been linked to exposure at a seafood market in Wuhan, which has been closed since 1 January 2020 in efforts to contain the outbreak.

In response, Dr Nick Phin, Deputy Director of the National Infection Service at Public Health England (PHE), said the current risk to the UK was “low” but the situation was under “constant review”. As of 29 January, in the UK 130 tests have concluded, of which 0 have been positive. Official advice is that any travellers who have visited Wuhan in the past two weeks should call NHS 111 to inform them of this fact, even if they do not have symptoms of the virus. They should avoid contact with others where possible for 14 days. If they develop a fever, difficulty breathing or a cough within 14 days they should not leave their home but seek medical advice by telephone.

Dr Irene Lai, Global Medical Director of International SOS, the medical and travel security risk company, warned, “There are many unknowns, and information is rapidly changing. Travellers are advised to monitor the situation.” The Foreign and Commonwealth Office now advises against all travel to mainland China. The UK has introduced advanced monitoring at airports with direct flights from China, and airlines such as British Airways have suspended direct flights in and out of the mainland.

Comment from Kate Palmer, Associate Director of Advisory at Peninsula

Employers’ duty of care towards their staff includes not requiring them to travel to somewhere that poses a health risk.

Employers who had intended to send staff to the affected areas should postpone the trip. Assess whether any meetings could be done via electronic means such as Skype or video conference

If travel to China is unavoidable, employers should maintain frequent communication with staff, ensure they take all precautions to keep themselves safe and have a plan in place for what to do if they do fall ill.

Last reviewed 30 January 2020