A Public Health England spokesperson has confirmed that cases of coronavirus are 'highly likely' in the UK. The statement came as the death toll of the coronavirus outbreak in China rose to 26 and travel restrictions in Hubei province were widened.

Professor Paul Cosford, medical director at Public Health England (PHE), told the BBC "we will not be surprised" if people return from China to the UK with the infection".  

PHE said that they are carefully monitoring the coronavirus situation in Wuhan and are ready to put in place proportionate, precautionary measures and added that the UK is well prepared for new diseases.

Enhanced monitoring was in place for all direct flights from Wuhan to the UK. This includes a number of measures to provide advice to travellers if they feel unwell. For those travelling back directly from Wuhan, this includes a Port Health team who will meet each direct flight aircraft to provide advice and support to those that feel unwell.

The team will include a principal port medical inspector, port health doctor, administrative support and team leader. They will check for symptoms of coronavirus and provide information to all passengers about symptoms and what to do if they become ill. Mandarin and Cantonese language support will be available to PHE and leaflets will be available to passengers.

There are three direct flights a week that arrive at Heathrow from Wuhan. The enhanced monitoring of direct flights will be kept under continuous review and expanded to other Chinese departure points if necessary.

What is coroavirus?

Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses with some causing less-severe disease, such as the common cold, and others causing more severe disease such as Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) coronaviruses.

On 31 December 2019, WHO was informed of a cluster of cases of pneumonia of unknown cause detected in Wuhan City, Hubei Province, China. A novel coronavirus was subsequently identitified from patient samples.

The risk to the UK population has been assessed as low, based on the emerging evidence regarding case numbers, potential sources and human to human transmission. This has been raised from very low due to evidence on the likelihood of cases being imported into this country. The source of the outbreak has yet to be determined. 

There are no confirmed cases of this new infection in the UK but the Department of Health and Social Care has issued clinical guidance for the detection and diagnosis of Wuhan novel coronavirus. PHE has also developed a diagnostic test, making the UK one of the first countries outside China to have a prototype specific laboratory test for this new disease.

The current risk to the UK of coronavirus is considered low

Dr Nick Phin, Deputy Director, National Infection Service, PHE, said: "This is a new and rapidly evolving situation where information on cases and the virus is being gathered and assessed daily. Based on the available evidence, the current risk to the UK is considered low. We are working with the WHO and other international partners, have issued advice to the NHS and are keeping the situation under constant review.

"If you are travelling to Wuhan, you should maintain good hand, respiratory and personal hygiene and should avoid visiting animal and bird markets or people who are ill with respiratory symptoms. Individuals should seek medical attention if they develop respiratory symptoms within 14 days of visiting Wuhan, either in China or on their return to the UK. They should phone ahead before attending any health services and mention their recent travel to the city."

The UK government's emergency committee, Cobra, will hold a meeting today to discuss the outbreak.