The World Health Organisation (WHO) has declared an international public health emergency over the coronavirus outbreak just hours before an evacuation flight to bring British nationals back to the UK is due to leave the Chinese city of Wuhan.
Health experts made the announcement on Thursday evening following a meeting of the WHO emergency committee in Geneva.
It comes as about 150 UK citizens are due to be brought back from China on a flight leaving Wuhan city at 7 am local time on Friday – 11 pm Thursday UK time.
Speaking to reporters, WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said: “The main reason for this declaration is not because of what is happening in China, but because of what is happening in other countries.
“Our greatest concern is the potential for the virus to spread to countries with weaker health systems, and which are ill-prepared to deal with it.”
Last week, WHO said it was “too early” to declare an international public health emergency but on Thursday said the action was needed to help countries to prepare for the possibility of it spreading further.
The new virus has now infected more people in China than fell ill during the 2002-2003 severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) outbreak. The number of cases has jumped to 7,711, surpassing the 5,327 people diagnosed with Sars.
The death toll, which rose to 170 on Thursday morning, is lower than the 348 people who died in China from Sars.
In the UK, 161 people have tested negative for the virus as of Thursday.
The Department of Foreign Affairs also updated its travel advice on Wednesday to Irish citizens to avoid non-essential travel to China.
The Irish ambassador to China, Eoin O’Leary, advised the Irish community thereof the travel warning in an email on Wednesday.
“We also advise that if you are thinking of leaving China, it would be better to do so sooner than later,” he said.
“We are doing this primarily in case there are further restrictions on travel to, from or within China by the Chinese or other authorities.”
British nationals and the three Irish people have been asked to make their own way to the airport, and it is understood the British Consulate has provided letters to help people in cars get past security checkpoints.
Passengers say they have been told only to take hand luggage on the flight.
Of 1,466 passengers and 95 staff who arrived in the UK from Wuhan between January 10th and 24th, some 162 have already left the UK and 760 are now outside the 14-day incubation period for the virus.
Meanwhile, British Airways has extended its suspension of all flights to and from mainland China until Monday.