Hunt for coronavirus spreaders as toll hits 36 with five catching it in UK

A search for hidden coronavirus spreaders who could be unwittingly passing the deadly disease onto others has been launched.

The desperate hunt was given the green light on Sunday after five more patients contracted the heavily contagious bug in Britain.

Four from one family tested positive, while 13 fresh cases were confirmed in the UK over the weekend – with three having been passed the virus by man in Surrey, who was confirmed as a patient on Friday.

Another patient, from Essex, contracted it in England.

This has left health officials scrambling to locate carriers who are spreading the disease without even knowing they have it, with many likely only displaying mild symptoms.


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Peter Openshaw, a professor of experimental medicine at Imperial College London, said: "This really adds to the supposition that many are now making that this one is going to be very hard to put back in the box.

"It makes it particularly difficult to control any outbreak if there are people who don’t know they’re spreading it."

The epidemic grew in Britain on Sunday after the total number of cases in the UK reached 36.

Chief medical officer, Professor Chris Whitty, said four people, two from Surrey and two from West Sussex, are members of a "family cluster", though confirmed none are health workers.

The Scottish Government, meanwhile, confirmed Scotland's first case in a patient from Tayside after they came back from a trip to Italy.

Britain's worrying coronavirus total has tripled in four days – while in one day it saw the biggest increase since the outbreak began.

This comes as Health Secretary Matt Hancock refused to rule out putting British cities on lockdown, in an echo of how China looked to first contain the virus to its Wuhan epicentre.

Among the new cases are two school staff members, both from Essex and who contracted the virus in England, though health officers are still determining whether they caught it "directly or indirectly" from someone who recently traveled abroad.

Of the eight remaining cases, six had recently travelled from Italy, while two had been in Iran.

All of the newly identified cases are being investigated and health officials have begun tracing anyone who had close contact with them.

They include one from Bury, Greater Manchester, who was infected in Italy and has now been taken to a specialist NHS infection centre.

Three cases were confirmed in West Yorkshire, including two Leeds residents – who became infected in Iran – while one is from Bradford who had been in Italy – the worst-affected country in Europe.

Two of the new patients are from Hertfordshire, one is from London and the other is from Gloucestershire and linked to a member of staff at school in the Cotswolds, who was identified on Saturday.

The Sun reports, a man from Belper, Derbyshire, is worried he has the disease and is now nervously awaiting results after health authorities who told him someone he had been in contact with has the bug.

The man, who did not wish to be named, is scared if he is positive he may have given it to his husband.

Debra Lapthorne, centre director for Public Health England South West, said: "Public Health England is contacting people who had close contact with the two confirmed cases of Covid-19.

"The two cases are linked and both became infected whilst in northern Italy.

"Staff from PHE have continued to support St Mary's Primary School, Tetbury, where one of the cases works."

Meanwhile, a group of pupils at Homewood School in Tenterden, Kent, have been told to self-isolate after returning from a ski trip in northern Italy.

Mr Hancock admitted it was "inevitable" the deadly virus would continue to spread, and did not rule out following China's lead in shutting down cities if the Covid-19 outbreak escalates.

Mr Hancock outlined a new "battle plan" by the Government on Sunday and would not rule out isolating entire cities, as Chinese authorities did with Wuhan, where the virus originated.

He told the BBC's Andrew Marr programme: "There is clearly a huge economic and social downside to that.

"But we don't take anything off the table at this stage because you have to make sure you have all the tools available if that is what is necessary."

On Sunday, the Department of Health and Social Care announced every department will have a ministerial lead on the virus, and a cross-Whitehall "war room" is being set up to roll out an enhanced public information campaign.

Emergency powers designed to restrict Covid-19 if it becomes endemic, due to be announced this week, would only be "temporary", said Mr Hancock.

He confirmed that "population distancing measures", such as banning public gatherings and cancelling football matches, could be considered by the Government, while closing schools may be "necessary".

He added the NHS was ready to deal with further cases of coronavirus, with more than 5,000 emergency critical care beds available.

The number of emergency meetings convened by the Government is to be increased, which comes amid criticism of Boris Johnson for failing to lead a Cobra contingencies committee on the outbreak until Monday.

The Prime Minister visited a PHE centre in Colindale, north London, on Sunday.

"I think, you know, I don't want to go now into the kinds of things that might be necessary," he told reporters.

"But you can imagine that, obviously, there will be questions that we'll need to consider about very big public events, that kind of thing, how should schools continue to operate.

"My view is that they should as far as possible and I don't want kids being sent home unnecessarily, we think that's where, that's certainly where Public Health England is at the moment.

"I think that's the right thing. I think the crucial thing for the public to understand is coronavirus is of concern, it is a novel illness, but it's something this country really amply has the resources to deal with.

"We have state of the art testing facilities, we have a fantastic NHS. We will have to get through this, but believe me we are going to beat it."

The Foreign Office confirmed that non-essential staff, as well as dependants, are to be pulled out of the British Embassy in Tehran.

And the Republic of Ireland reported its first case on Saturday, with a secondary school to be closed for 14 days after authorities identified its pupils and teachers as having been in contact with the male patient.

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