Boris Johnson. (REUTERS/Toby Melville - /File Photo)

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said slowing the spread of the coronavirus was now his government’s top priority, shortly after news on Friday that the first Briton had died of the disease after contracting it on a cruise ship moored in Japan.

The country was right to be concerned about the virus, he said, as the number of people infected in the UK rose to 20.

“The issue of coronavirus is something that is now the government’s top priority,” he told broadcasters in his first statement on the disease, adding that he would be chairing a meeting of ministers and officials on the subject on Monday.

The health ministry said the most recent person to be infected was the first to have caught the virus in the UK, rather than during a trip abroad, and that it was trying to find the source of the infection.

“The virus was passed on in the UK. It is not yet clear whether they contracted it directly or indirectly from an individual who had recently returned from abroad. This is being investigated and contact tracing has begun. The patient has been transferred to a specialist NHS infection centre at Guy’s and St Thomas’,” said Chief Medical Officer for England Professor Chris Whitty.

The total number of cases in England is now 18 while Northern Ireland and Wales reported one case each.

Mainland China – where the virus originated late last year – reported 327 new cases, the lowest since Jan. 23, taking its tally to more than 78,800 cases with almost 2,800 deaths.

However, the disease is now spreading across the globe, with the first case reported in Nigeria on Friday and 888 people infected in Italy, Europe’s worst-hit country.

The UK reported its first confirmed coronavirus case on January 31 but there have been no deaths in the country so far. The British person who died was in Japan, where the Diamond Princess cruise ship had docked off Yokohama on February 3.

The virus – which causes a disease called COVID-19 – is transmitted from person to person in droplets when an infected person breathes out, coughs or sneezes. It can also spread via contaminated surfaces such as door handles.

The UK health officials have urged the public to wash their hands to slow the spread of the disease, but have not recommended the use of face masks common in much of Asia.


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