The British government on Monday warned the outbreak of novel coronavirus was a “serious and imminent threat” and reported four new cases that brought the total recorded in the country to eight.
Anyone with the virus can now be forcibly quarantined and sent into isolation if they are deemed to pose a public health threat, the government said.
Two hospitals have been designated as “isolation” facilities, with both currently housing Britons who have returned from Wuhan, the Chinese city at the centre of the outbreak.
“The incidence or transmission of novel coronavirus constitutes a serious and imminent threat to public health,” the health ministry warned.
The Press Association news agency quoted an unnamed government source as saying the new measures were announced because one person who returned from China on an evacuation flight “was threatening to abscond” from 14-day isolation.
The new patients who tested positive in Britain are all known contacts of a previously confirmed case in France, the ministry said.
Health authorities were not able to confirm if these are the same cases reported by the French authorities on Saturday when contacted by AFP.
Five British nationals who tested positive in France came in contact with a Briton who had returned from Singapore and stayed at a ski chalet near Mont Blanc in the French Alps.
The four new patients have been transferred to specialist centres in two London hospitals “and we are now using robust infection control measures to prevent further spread of the virus,” the health ministry said.
The health service was “extremely well prepared to manage these cases and treat them.”
Two evacuation flights have returned British nationals from Wuhan and they have been taken into quarantine for two weeks.
Health minister Matt Hancock said the new regulations would “ensure that the public are protected as far as possible from the transmission of the virus”.
Dr Nick Phin, Deputy Director, National Infection Service, Public Health England, said: “These new cases are all closely linked and were rapidly identified through Public Health England’s comprehensive contact tracing approach and tested quickly. Our priority is speaking to those people who have had close and sustained contact with confirmed cases so that we can advise them on what they can do to limit the spread of the virus.”
The SARS-like virus, which first emerged at the end of last year, has killed more than 900 people and spread around the world. Some 40,000 people have been infected in China and 350 elsewhere.