THE UK remains ‘prepared for all eventualities’, Downing Street has insisted, as fears grow over a global coronavirus pandemic.
Experts fear the killer virus will reach pandemic status after a rapid spread in Italy, South Korea and Iran.
The World Health Organization (WHO) is worried about the lack of an obvious link between China and newer cases elsewhere.
In Italy, some 50,000 people have been hit by a lockdown in the Lombardy and Veneto regions as the country reported more than 160 cases — the largest number in Europe.
In the UK, 13 have been diagnosed with Covid-19, its official name, including four over the weekend from the Diamond Princess cruise ship held in quarantine in Japan.
Downing Street today pledged the UK was ‘well prepared’ and the risk to individuals remained low.
The prime minister’s spokesman said: ‘We will be led by the advice from public health and medical experts and will take steps which they feel are required to best protect the British public.
‘We are well prepared for UK cases, we are using tried and tested procedures to prevent further spread and the NHS is extremely well prepared and used to managing infections.
‘We continue to work closely with the World Health Organization and international partners as the situation develops and we remain prepared for all eventualities.’
WHO spokeswoman Margaret Harris said: ‘If it became clear that it is all around the globe and we are seeing systematic community transmission, then we would say this meets the definition of a pandemic.’
The Foreign Office has not advised Brits against travel to Italy but has updated its website about the situation there.
People in the affected areas are being told to follow public health advice from local Italian authorities.
Meanwhile, British experts have been debating whether the world is heading for a pandemic.
David Heymann, a professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said: ‘Transmissibility in the community is not yet fully understood — terms such as pandemic are distracting.
‘What is necessary is to understand the current situation in each country.’
Professor Mark Woolhouse, at the University of Edinburgh, said: ‘A pandemic means an infectious disease is spreading out of control in different regions of the world.’
He added: ‘The immediate implication is that many different countries around the world may be sources of Covid-19 infections.
‘This makes it much harder for any one country to detect and contain imported cases and trying to do so will place ever greater demands on national health systems.
‘This will make large and difficult-to-control outbreaks more likely in the UK and many other countries.’
Last Tuesday, Italian media reported the country’s sixth death from coronavirus. About 77,000 people in China, where the virus emerged in Wuhan city, have been infected and nearly 2,600 have died.
More than 1,200 cases have been confirmed in 26 other countries with at least 20 deaths.
Bruce Aylward, a WHO assistant director-general, said at a briefing in Beijing today that China’s unprecedented lockdown and restrictions may have blunted the virus’s spread, the Guardian reported.
Four Brits rescued from the Diamond Princess are being treated at specialist centres in the north of England after testing positive for the illness.
They were among a group of 30 Britons and two Irish citizens who arrived at a quarantine block at Arrowe Park Hospital in Merseyside on Saturday.
British couple David and Sally Abel, from Northamptonshire, who were on the cruise for their 50th wedding anniversary, are still in a Japanese hospital after being diagnosed with coronavirus and pneumonia.
Also over the weekend, 118 people repatriated from Wuhan were released from a coronavirus quarantine centre in Milton Keynes.