Boris Johnson will chair his first emergency meeting on coronavirus tomorrow as the killer bug continues to take its toll around the world.
As the number of global deaths passed 3,000, 12 more patients in England and one in Scotland tested positive for COVID-19, taking the UK total to 36.
The number of confirmed cases in Italy rose to almost 1,700, and the death toll there increased by five to 34.
The Czech Republic confirmed its first three cases, all linked to travel to Italy.
Australia suffered its first coronavirus death from its 25 confirmed cases, a man aged 78 who had been on a cruise.
Health chiefs said the new English cases included people from London, West Yorkshire, Greater Manchester, Hertfordshire and Gloucestershire. One from Essex had not been abroad.
The PM, who faced criticism for not taking a public lead on the crisis, warned the virus would almost certainly present a “significant challenge”.
He said: “The number of coronavirus cases around the world is rising every day – and the UK is no exception. There now seems little doubt it will present a significant challenge for our country.
“But we are well prepared, and the Government and the NHS will stop at nothing to fight this virus.”
Ministers are braced for the virus potentially resulting in multiple deaths and are setting up a Cabinet Office “war room” to fight the outbreak.
The Chief Medical Officer and Chief Scientific Advisor will be at today’s COBRA meeting.
Dr Susan Crossland, president of the Society for Acute Medicine, warned that a major coronavirus outbreak would bring “immense stress” to the NHS.
Three of the new English cases relate to a man from Surrey who tested positive on Friday, becoming the first person to get infected within the UK. All are adults, one from Surrey and two from West Sussex, and they are not GPs or health workers.
St Mary’s School in Tetbury, Wilts, confirmed a member of staff tested positive, with the school closed until at least Wednesday. Scotland’s first case is a resident of the Tayside area who has recently returned from Italy.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock insisted the NHS was ready to deal with coronavirus if the situation worsened, and
had made more than 5,000 emergency critical care beds available.
Mr Hancock said: “Of course this would be a very big pressure on the NHS, depending on the scale of the impact. We have those plans in place.”
There are concerns the NHS, buckling under the strain of staff shortages, a winter flu crisis and the impact of austerity, could struggle to cope.
Shadow Health Secretary Jon Ashworth said there were “serious questions” to be asked about the capacity of the “overstretched” NHS – and called on Mr Hancock to update MPs today.
Mr Ashworth added: “There are growing concerns about our part-time Prime Minister’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak.”
Mr Hancock said nothing would be “off the table” when it came to tackling the spread.
He refused to rule out cutting off entire cities. Football matches and concerts could be banned and people could be urged against using public transport.
Emergency powers could also be used to enforce quarantine if patients resisted.
“There’s clearly a huge economic and social downside to that, but we don’t take anything off the table at this stage,” Mr Hancock said.
He warned the UK may have to take “significant actions” that would have “social and economic disruption”, including closing schools and pulling ex-doctors out of retirement.
But he said “at this stage” people should “go about their ordinary business” and that over-60s did not need to avoid public transport, despite Tedros Adhanom, the Director General of the World Health Organisation, advising it.
New Chancellor Rishi Sunak may be forced to change next week’s Budget over fears the virus will trigger an economic downturn.
Mr Johnson yesterday visited Public Health England in North London, where tests are carried out, and the Royal Free Hospital, where patients are being treated. He said: “About 35 people in this country have, or have had, the illness. That is likely now to spread a bit more.”
Actress Joan Collins, 86, was taking no chances. She posted a photo of herself online in a mask and hood, captioned: “Prepared.”
Smog lifts over China
Scientists have seen a fall in air pollution over China as factories stop work to contain the virus.
This year images from NASA show falling levels of nitrogen dioxide – gas emitted by motor vehicles and industrial facilities.
Nasa said the decline coincided with restrictions on transportation and business.
Fei Liu at the agency said: “I am not surprised. Many cities have taken measures to minimise spread of the virus.”
The Louvre in Paris was forced to shut its doors today as the French government’s muddled coronavirus policy sparked fear.
Staff walked out, worried about catching the disease from foreign visitors.
It came after Health Secretary Olivier Veran banned crowds of more than 5,000 people in “enclosed spaces”, without defining the term.
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