Coronavirus: Hundreds of flu patients to be tested by UK hospitals and GPs
Tests for coronavirus are being increased to include people displaying flu-like symptoms at 100 GP surgeries and eight hospitals across the UK.
The tests will provide an “early warning” if the virus is spreading, Public Health England’s Prof Paul Cosford said.
Oil firm Chevron asked 300 London staff to work from home while one employee is tested for the virus.
And more schools closed after trips to Italy, which has more than 300 cases.
Italy has in recent days become Europe’s worst-affected country, with a surge in cases that appear to have spread to Austria, Croatia and Switzerland.
Prof Cosford, emeritus medical director at Public Health England, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “We are heightening our vigilance because of the apparent spread of the virus in countries outside mainland China.”
Up to now, people were tested only if they displayed symptoms having recently returned from one of the countries where there has been an outbreak, including China, South Korea and northern Italy.
However, Prof Cosford said Public Health England was now working with hospitals and GP surgeries to conduct tests on some patients with coughs, fevers or shortness of breath – regardless of whether they have travelled to a place where the virus is spreading.
“If we do get to the position of a more widespread infection across the country, then it will give us early warning that’s happening,” said Prof Cosford.
The eight hospital trusts involved are Brighton and Sussex University Hospitals, Guy’s and St Thomas’, Royal Brompton and Harefield, Royal Papworth Hospital, University Hospitals of Leicester, University Hospitals of South Manchester , Nottingham University Hospital and Sheffield Teaching Hospitals.
The plan is expected to mean hundreds more people are tested for the virus each week. There have been 7,132 tests carried out in the UK since the outbreak began to spread beyond China in January.
Of these, 13 were confirmed positive – including four people who returned from the Diamond Princess cruise ship in Japan.
Eight of the coronavirus patients have been discharged from hospital.
Prof Cosford said the UK was still in the “containment” phase of dealing with the coronavirus, and added that efforts to identify and isolate people with the virus returning to the UK were “working really quite well”.
He said Public Health England was not giving “blanket advice” that schools should close if staff or pupils have travelled to areas with outbreaks of the virus.
But, he said, schools made “difficult decisions” according to their specific circumstances.
Several schools have closed or sent pupils home after they returned from skiing trips in northern Italy over half-term.
It comes after Public Health England updated the advice for travellers returning from Italy, the European country worst-affected by the virus.
Anyone returning from 11 Italian towns now under quarantine is asked to self-isolate and call NHS 111, while people coming back from anywhere in Italy north of Pisa are asked to self-isolate only if they experienced symptoms.
Among the schools affected are:
- Tudor Grange Academy, Kingshurst, in Birmingham, where six pupils have “flu-like symptoms” after a ski trip to Tarviso, Italy
- Ysgol Friars in Bangor, where students were told to stay home if they have the “mildest symptoms” after a trip to the same Lombardy ski resort as a Cheshire school which closed
- Lutton St Nicholas Primary School and Gedney Church End Primary School in Lincolnshire, which are jointly managed and have closed while an “individual within the school” is tested for the virus
- St Aidan’s High School in Harrogate, where 34 students and four staff were told to self-isolate for six days after returning from a trip to the ski resort of Apricia in Italy
- St Christopher’s C of E High School in Accrington, which told parents it would be closed on Wednesday as a precautionary measure after some pupils returning from Pila in the Italian Alps said they felt unwell
- Three schools in Northern Ireland – Limavady Grammar School, Banbridge Academy and Cambridge House Grammar in Ballymena – also sent students home after they returned from trips to northern Italy
Hugh Hegarty, CEO of the trust which runs Trinity Catholic College in Middlesbrough, said the school closed because of the “potential risk” after students and staff returned from a ski trip near Verona.
“The challenge for us is that guidance was issued on Tuesday morning and the children had returned to the school on Monday,” he told the Today programme.
Mr Hegarty said they advised children who had been on the trip to self-isolate at home, while the school as a whole would close for 72 hours, during which there would be a deep clean and school leaders would monitor the situation.
He said it was hard for schools to determine if students or staff were showing concerning symptoms given that they resembled those of a cold or flu. “It’s February and it’s the north-east of England,” he said.
Meanwhile, Britons are among hundreds of guests confined to a hotel in Tenerife after a visiting Italian doctor tested positive for the coronavirus.
Rosie Mitford told the BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire programme they were being allowed out in the grounds now their temperatures have been tested.
She said: “They’ve given us a mask and you can wander about if you want, but really you should stay in your room. Obviously it’s an awful situation. Everyone’s just keeping their spirits up as much as they can, really.”
With 11 towns in northern Italy placed under quarantine, Prof Cosford said the UK would be “cautious” about putting communities on lockdown if the virus became more widespread here.
He said they would monitor the infection and take scientific advice, but it was “unlikely at the moment” that such actions would be necessary.
The aim was to “delay the onset of widespread infection” to give the NHS time to get through the pressures of the winter period, he said, after which it would be better able to cope with the influx of patients.