Get all your news in one place.
100’s of premium titles.
One app.
Start reading
The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Emma Graham-Harrison

China ambassador says UK overreacting with coronavirus advice

Workers with sanitising equipment walk up a flight of stairs as they disinfect a railway station in Kunming, Yunnan province, China.
Workers with sanitising equipment walk up a flight of stairs as they disinfect a railway station in Kunming, Yunnan province, China. Photograph: STRINGER/Reuters

China’s ambassador to the UK has condemned the British authorities for sowing panic over the coronavirus with its advice for all British citizens to leave the country.

On Tuesday the British government became the first in the world to advise all citizens to leave China if they could, although unlike the US, Australia and several other countries, it has not banned entry for travellers who have recently visited mainland China.

Ambassador Liu Xiaoming said the UK position was an overreaction that ignored World Heath Organization advice against sweeping travel restrictions, which he claimed UK officials had privately acknowledged was correct.

“I am not accusing, I would just like to see their words match their actions,” Liu said at a press conference in London about China’s handling of the coronavirus. “We asked them to take the advice of the WHO, to make a reasonable reaction.

“We don’t think there should be such a panic. We were given notice before they [the UK] made a formal announcement, we advised them we don’t think it’s a good idea. We believe the epidemic is controllable, preventable and curable.”

The UK has three confirmed cases of coronavirus infection, two connected to the University of York and one diagnosed in Brighton on Thursday. The new patient did not contract the disease in the UK, the chief medical officer said.

In China the disease still shows no sign of being brought under control, despite massive government mobilisation to try to contain it. There are now over 28,000 people infected, the vast majority in Hubei province, which is the centre of the outbreak, and over 560 people have died.

Liu said the Chinese government had asked London to review its decision, but otherwise praised ties between the two countries.

He said the Chinese and British governments had “maintained very close contact” since the outbreak began, and praised collaboration between scientists from the two countries who are working in areas including tracing the origin of the coronavirus and the race to develop a vaccine.

He declined to comment on why he thought London had brought in the hardline policy, saying that was for the Foreign Office to answer.

What is the virus causing illness in Wuhan?

It is a member of the coronavirus family that has never been encountered before. Like other coronaviruses, it has come from animals. Many of those initially infected either worked or frequently shopped in the Huanan seafood wholesale market in the centre of the Chinese city.

What other coronaviruses have there been?

New and troubling viruses usually originate in animal hosts. Ebola and flu are other examples – severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) and Middle Eastern respiratory syndrome (Mers) are both caused by coronaviruses that came from animals. 

What are the symptoms of the Wuhan coronavirus?

The virus causes pneumonia. Those who have fallen ill are reported to suffer coughs, fever and breathing difficulties. In severe cases there can be organ failure. As this is viral pneumonia, antibiotics are of no use. The antiviral drugs we have against flu will not work. If people are admitted to hospital, they may get support for their lungs and other organs as well as fluids. Recovery will depend on the strength of their immune system. Many of those who have died were already in poor health.

Is the virus being transmitted from one person to another?

Human to human transmission has been confirmed by China’s national health commission, and there have been human-to-human transmissions in the US and in Germany. As of 8 February, the death toll stands at 722 inside China, one in Hong Kong and one in the Philippines. Infections inside China stand at 31,161 and global infections have passed 280 in 28 countries. The mortality rate is 2%.

Two members of one family have been confirmed to have the virus in the UK, and a third person was diagnosed with it in Brighton, after more than 400 were tested and found negative. The Foreign Office has urged UK citizens to leave China if they can. Five new cases in France are British nationals, and British nationals are also among the 64 cases on a cruise liner off Japan.

The number of people to have contracted the virus could be far higher, as people with mild symptoms may not have been detected. Modelling by World Health Organization (WHO) experts at Imperial College London suggests there could be as many as 100,000 cases, with uncertainty putting the margins between 30,000 and 200,000.

Why is this worse than normal influenza, and how worried are the experts?

We don’t yet know how dangerous the new coronavirus is, and we won’t know until more data comes in. The mortality rate is around 2%. However, this is likely to be an overestimate since many more people are likely to have been infected by the virus but not suffered severe enough symptoms to attend hospital, and so have not been counted. For comparison, seasonal flu typically has a mortality rate below 1% and is thought to cause about 400,000 deaths each year globally. Sars had a death rate of more than 10%.

Should I go to the doctor if I have a cough?

Unless you have recently travelled to China or been in contact with someone infected with the virus, then you should treat any cough or cold symptoms as normal. The NHS advises that people should call 111 instead of visiting the GP’s surgery as there is a risk they may infect others.

Is this a pandemic and should we panic?

Health experts are starting to say it could become a pandemic, but right now it falls short of what the WHO would consider to be one. A pandemic, in WHO terms, is “the worldwide spread of a disease”. Coronavirus cases have been confirmed in about 25 countries outside China, but by no means in all 195 on the WHO’s list.

There is no need to panic. The spread of the virus outside China is worrying but not an unexpected development. The WHO has declared the outbreak to be a public health emergency of international concern, and says there is a “window of opportunity” to halt the spread of the disease. The key issues are how transmissible this new coronavirus is between people and what proportion become severely ill and end up in hospital. Often viruses that spread easily tend to have a milder impact.

Sarah Boseley Health editor and Hannah Devlin 

As well as concerns over the spread of the virus, staff numbers on the ground in China were thought to be a factor. The British embassy has evacuated all non-essential staff and already warned that the support it could offer citizens would be reduced.

Most UK citizens who were stranded in the quarantined centre of the outbreak have been evacuated on special flights, but tens of thousands more live in cities across China, often with Chinese relatives or dependents.

Liu also raised concerns about “hatred and discrimination” towards Chinese citizens and people of Chinese heritage in the UK, as fears about the virus grew. He said the embassy had had reports of discrimination from schools and universities, and had issued warning advice.

He admitted that the country had not been fully prepared for an epidemic on the scale it was now battling.

“I can’t say China is prepared for this outbreak, we don’t have enough beds, hospitals,” he said, adding that was why two new hospitals had been thrown up in Hubei in as many weeks. “We try our best to take as many patients as possible,” he added.

Sign up to read this article
Read news from 100’s of titles, curated specifically for you.
Already a member? Sign in here
Related Stories
Top stories on inkl right now
One subscription that gives you access to news from hundreds of sites
Already a member? Sign in here
Our Picks
Fourteen days free
Download the app
One app. One membership.
100+ trusted global sources.