UK calls virus "serious" health threat; will detain people

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People wearing face masks disembark from an aircraft repatriating British and other nationalities to the UK from the coronavirus hit city of Wuhan in China, following its arrival at RAF Brize Norton, England, Sunday Feb. 9, 2020. (Jacob King/PA via AP)

LONDON – Britain has declared the new coronavirus that emerged from China a "serious and imminent threat to public health'' and announced new measures Monday to combat the spread of the disease.

The U.K. Department of Health and Social Care said people with the virus can now be forcibly quarantined and will not be free to leave. It named two British specialist hospitals in London as isolation facilities for those affected: Guy’s and St. Thomas’ and The Royal Free. It also designated the Chinese city of Wuhan and the surrounding Hubei province where the virus first emerged as a “infected area.”

It said the number of virus cases in Britain has doubled to eight, with the four new cases reported Monday all known contacts of an earlier U.K. case, a person who was infected in France. Experts at Public Health England were working hard to trace people who have come into contact with confirmed cases.

“The incidence or transmission of novel coronavirus constitutes a serious and imminent threat to public health, and the measures outlined in these regulations are considered as an effective means of delaying or preventing further transmission of the virus,” the agency said.

It added the changes were designed to ensure the health and safety of both patients and medical workers. Britain has only eight of Europe's 43 confirmed virus cases but it is a key travel hub between Asia and Europe.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson's spokesman described the announcement as a measure to strengthen regulations and said it does not mean the threat to the public has increased.

“The U.K. threat level as set by Public Health England and the chief medical officer remains unchanged at moderate,” said spokesman James Slack.

The change comes after a British man who caught the virus at a business conference in Singapore in January appears to be linked to at least seven other confirmed cases in Europe.