More than a dozen people in the UK have been tested for coronavirus, as the Health Secretary said there is an “increased likelihood” of cases occurring.
Fourteen people were tested for the virus, with five confirmed negative and nine still awaiting results, Public Health England (PHE) said on Thursday night.
The Scottish Government had earlier confirmed that five people were being examined after presenting with symptoms of the illness, while it was understood that another patient was being tested at Belfast’s Royal Victoria Hospital.
While none of the UK cases has been confirmed as the virus so far, two of those being tested in Scotland had been diagnosed with influenza after travelling to Wuhan, China.
They all travelled to Scotland from Wuhan, where the outbreak is thought to have originated, within the past two weeks, and were showing symptoms of respiratory trouble, a red flag for the virus.
Downing Street said four suspected cases in Scotland were believed to involve Chinese nationals.
It comes after infections expert Professor Jurgen Haas claimed there would likely be “many more cases” around the country, while Health Secretary Matt Hancock said the NHS is “ready to respond appropriately” to any cases that emerge in the UK.
In a statement to the Commons on Thursday, Mr Hancock said while “there is an increased likelihood that cases may arise in this country, we are well prepared and well equipped to deal with them”.
Speaking at a press conference, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the WHO, said: “Make no mistake, this is though an emergency in China.
“But it has not yet become a global health emergency.
“It may yet become one.”
He said 584 cases have been reported to the WHO, including 17 deaths, with 575 of the overall cases and all the deaths reported in China.
Other cases have been reported in Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Thailand, the US and Vietnam.
“We know that there is human-to-human transmission in China, but for now it appears limited to family groups and health workers caring for infected patients.
“At this time, there is no evidence of human-to-human transmission outside China, but that doesn’t mean it won’t happen.
“There is still a lot we don’t know. We don’t know the source of this virus, we don’t understand how easily it spreads and we don’t fully understand its clinical features or severity.”
Peter Piot, professor of global health and director of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, said there were still “many missing pieces in the jigsaw puzzle”, adding: “Over the coming days and weeks we will know much more, but there cannot be any complacency as to the need for global action.
“The good news is that the data to date suggest that this virus may have a lower mortality than Sars, we have a diagnostic test and there is greater transparency than decades gone by.
“And that is essential because you cannot deal with a potential pandemic in one country alone.”
Prof Haas, head of infection medicine at the University of Edinburgh, told the PA news agency on Thursday: “We have currently three cases of suspected Wuhan coronavirus in Edinburgh and as far as I understand one case in Glasgow.”
He said the cases emerged overnight, adding: “The situation will be pretty similar in pretty much all UK cities with a large number of Chinese students.
“It’s not too surprising. My suspicion is that there will probably be many more cases in many other cities in the UK.
“None of the cases I know of have been confirmed.”
He said there was only one laboratory testing for the virus, operated by Public Health England (PHE).
The professor said the cases had been flagged up through the PHE infection guidelines, as they travelled to Wuhan within the last 14 days and were showing signs of respiratory symptoms.
The Chinese government has effectively locked down Wuhan, cancelling planes and trains there and in the nearby city of Huanggang.