Coronavirus crisis: Raab urges Britons to leave China

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All 30,000 British nationals in China have been urged to leave the country “if they can” because of the coronavirus outbreak, in a surprise move that prompted criticism that the UK government has left its citizens to fend for themselves.

In a further sign of mounting international concern about the spread of the coronavirus, the Foreign Office also recommended a ban on Britons travelling to China.

This was partly due to concerns that the Chinese government is struggling to control the spread of the virus, but also because of the dwindling number of British officials who remain in the country.

Some Britons in China said the advice had left them baffled and concerned. One told the Guardian: “For many of us this has put us in an impossible position. It’s all a bit of a shocker really.”

The foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, said in a statement: “We now advise British nationals in China to leave the country if they can, to minimise their risk of exposure to the virus. Where there are still British nationals in Hubei province who wish to be evacuated, we will continue to work around the clock to facilitate this.”

Quick guide

What is the coronavirus and should we be worried?

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, or possibly seafood. New and troubling viruses usually originate in animal hosts. Ebola and flu are examples.

What other coronaviruses have there been?

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 are known to have been 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. As of 3 February, 361 people have died in China, and one in the Philippines. Confirmed infections in China are 17,238, and the official Chinese figures include Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau. Outside of China, infections stand at more than 150.

Two members of one family have been confirmed to have the virus in the UK, after more than 160 were tested and found negative. The actual number 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.

How worried are the experts?

There were fears that the coronavirus might spread more widely during the week-long lunar new year holidays, which start on 24 January, when millions of Chinese travel home to celebrate, but the festivities have largely been cancelled and Wuhan and other Chinese cities are in lockdown.

At what point should you go to the doctor if you have a cough, say?

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 there is generally no need to visit a doctor for a cough unless it is persistent or you are having other symptoms such as chest pain, difficulty breathing or you feel very unwell.

Should we panic?

No. The spread of the virus outside China is worrying but not an unexpected development. It increases the likelihood that the World Health Organization will declare the outbreak to be a public health emergency of international concern on Thursday evening. The key concerns are how transmissible this new coronavirus is between people and what proportion become severely ill and end up in hospital.

Sarah Boseley Health editor and Hannah Devlin 

The shadow foreign secretary, Emily Thornberry, accused the government of abandoning Britons. “From the very start of this outbreak, the government’s response has been a total shambles, and now they appear to be telling British nationals in China simply to fend for themselves in terms of getting out of the country,” she said.

“How on earth has the Foreign Office not got plans and protocols in place for how these crises are managed. The first duty of any government is to protect its citizens, at home and abroad, and Boris Johnson is manifestly failing to do that.”

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Robin Mitchell, a 38-year-old lecturer in Xiamen, Fujian province, who has a six-year-old daughter with his Chinese partner, described the news as “about as far from reassuring as possible”.

He said: “For most expats, leaving China is not like cutting a holiday short. We have jobs, houses, pets and, most importantly of all, family here. I, and presumably hundreds or possibly thousands like me, have a child with a Chinese partner, which complicates matters even further as visa applications take months.

“Since the outbreak the consulate has not made any attempt to contact any expat I know and appears to have completely jumped ship.”

Downing Street said British nationals who wanted to return from China should follow the advice and precautions of the commercial airlines they flew on in relation to the coronavirus.

“Where British nationals can leave the country they should do so, given the risk that travel restrictions may increase,” the prime minister’s official spokesperson said.

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More than 400 people have now died in the outbreak, and China has increased the number of cities on lockdown. The country’s leadership admitted “shortcomings” in its handling of the virus.

The World Health Organization (WHO) declared a global health emergency, with at least 151 cases in 23 other countries and regions. There have been 20,000 cases in China.

So far two people have tested positive for coronavirus in the UK. The patients, who are members of the same family and believed to be Chinese nationals, are receiving specialist care at the Airborne High Consequence Infectious Diseases Centre in Newcastle’s Royal Victoria infirmary.

The health secretary, Matt Hancock, said he expected further cases as the global community worked to stop the rapid spread of the virus. Speaking before a meeting on Tuesday with his German counterpart, Jens Spahn, Hancock said the UK was working with other countries to research a vaccine.

“We haven’t seen the peak of the coronavirus by a long stretch and we expect more cases in the UK,” Hancock said.

Spahn said it was important that the UK and EU continue to cooperate, regardless of their future relationship. He said: “The virus obviously knows no borders and is a threat to all our citizens. What’s important for the international community is to join forces when it comes to research, when it comes to detecting the virus and combating it.”


China’s national mortality rate from coronavirus is running at 2.1%, while in Hubei province, which accounts for 97% of all fatalities, the rate is 3%. China’s national health commission said 80% of deaths were among people over the age of 60, and 75% had underlying conditions.

Tens of thousands of British nationals in China work across professions from business and consultancy to academia and medicine. They include executives at international companies and entrepreneurs who have set up their own companies in the country, teachers at prestigious international schools and English-language teachers at Chinese schools.


There are also academics, journalistsand doctors working at international hospitals, many language students and some university students studying at Chinese institutions. If they want to leave, many will have to break contracts, leave behind businesses, abandon studies and take children out of school.

Any exodus would have inevitable knock-on effects for Chinese citizens who work for or with British nationals, take classes from them or rely on them for medical care or other services.

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