Ministers are working to get Britons out of coronavirus-hit Hubei province in China, as Public Health England (PHE) acknowledged that the first UK case is likely to come from somebody already in the country.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the Government was doing “everything we can” to help Britons in the Chinese region at the centre of the outbreak.
Amid criticism of the Government’s response, the Foreign Office said it was working on plans to help Britons leave the area and said anyone in the province who needs assistance can call a 24-hour helpline.
A spokesman said: “We are working to make an option available for British nationals to leave Hubei province due to the heavy travel restrictions and increased difficulty of accessing consular or medical assistance.”
The Prime Minister told reporters: “We are looking at everything we can to give reassurance to those people in Wuhan and you will be hearing a bit more in due course but I don’t want to pre-empt the decisions we are going to make.”
He said travellers arriving in the UK would be “properly screened and checked if they have come from an area that is known to have the infection”.
“So far there is still no case of somebody with coronavirus here in the UK but clearly there are a lot of cases in China and it is spreading.”
The Government efforts came as Professor Yvonne Doyle, medical director and director of health protection for PHE, said the first UK case is likely to come from somebody already in the country.
In an interview with Sky News, she said: “Our view is that, although airports are important, the most likely place that we might find a case is somebody in the country already, and it’s absolutely critical that the public health service and the NHS are ready to diagnose that and are able to designate the person to the right facilities.
“That’s the most likely scenario we are dealing with.”
Asked if she was alarmed about a UK case, she said: “I think, with infections, health is global.
“We’ve been here before, we’ve dealt with Middle Eastern virus, we’ve dealt with Sars, we deal with flu regularly, which can be dangerous, but we’re ready.”
And asked if there could be cases already in Britain, she said: “I would expect so.”
Prof Doyle said efforts were continuing to trace the 2,000 people who have entered the UK from China on international flights.
“We are now looking back to see whether any of them are still in the country, because some of them will have returned to China, but there are moves to identify them,” she said.
“It’s not always possible to find everybody but we are working to our best endeavours.”
Prof Doyle said washing hands with soap and water is more effective than wearing a face mask, although face masks are important for staff to use in hospitals when dealing with suspected cases.
And she urged anyone who has entered the UK from Wuhan and who has fallen ill with a fever, cough or difficulty breathing, to contact NHS 111.
Some 73 people have now been tested for coronavirus in the UK, although all have come back negative.
The current risk to the public remains low, the Department of Health has said, adding that the Government is continuing to monitor the situation closely.
The overall number of cases of coronavirus now stand at almost 8,000, with 81 deaths confirmed in China.
Hubei province has been on lockdown for several days as China seeks to contain the illness.
A pair of British teachers who have been working in Wuhan say they have not left their apartment for five days, that all transport has been stopped and “there is no place to go”, and “so we are pretty much stuck”.
Jason Neal and Sophie Hunt told BBC Breakfast there has been no reassurance from the British authorities whom they have “struggled” to contact, possibly because of the time difference and them being closed over the weekend.
Ms Hunt said emailing and trying to ring the authorities has brought a “useless automated response back from the embassy saying not to go” to the area.
One British man, who had travelled to Wuhan to visit his girlfriend, is stuck in the city after his return flight on February 3 was cancelled, and he described trying to get out of the area as “impossible”.
The 29-year-old, who did not want to be named, told the PA news agency: “There is no news on when the airport will reopen therefore the airline (China Southern) have just cancelled the flight.
“I’ve also had no help from the UK embassy in Beijing who are conveniently closed for the weekend.”
Professor Neil Ferguson, from Imperial College London, said his “best guess” was that 100,000 people had been infected with the flu-like virus.
Authorities in China have cancelled a host of events marking Chinese New Year as they expand their measures against the virus.