The bus drivers for the 83 British evacuees suspected of carrying the deadly coronavirus spent an entire 172-mile journey with them without wearing face masks.
Although none of the passengers rescued from Wuhan have been confirmed infected, the virus is highly contagious and they are being bundled into quarantine in Arrowe Park Hospital, Wirral, for 14 days.
Yet, the men behind the wheel of the buses spent hours cooped up in the vehicles without protective clothing.
Earlier this afternoon, they even greeted the suspected patients with handshakes at RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire before embarking on their long-haul drive across the country to the North West.
The coronavirus, which has infected nearly 10,000 people and killed 213, is known to spread easily through coughs and sneezes and close contact, and people may be contagious even if they feel well.
The Department of Health said coach drivers – who will not be quarantined, MailOnline understands – would be wearing ‘appropriate protective equipment’, but images have emerged of them wearing none, despite being sat beside hazmat-wearing medical workers.
The drivers will also spend 14 days in isolation themselves. They were asked to drive those brought back from China without any masks or specialist clothing – and will now take a period of paid leave away from others.
A spokesman for Horseman Coaches said their staff had been reassured by Government officials that they did not need to wear masks for the 180-mile journey because passengers had been quarantined for eight days in China and only allowed on the flight because they were clear of any symptoms.
However, the Department of Health rubbished the eight-day claim and said no protective gear was required because the risk to drivers was ‘very low.’
The drivers will not be formally quarantined but have been advised to ‘self-isolate’ at home for the next 14 days as a precaution and their vehicles will also be deep-cleaned before being allowed back into service in a fortnight.
The Mail understands that the pilot and crew on the flight from Wuhan province were also not instructed to wear masks and it was unclear last night whether they had also been told to self-quarantine.
The Ministry of Defence insisted that all Government employees and military personnel who had come into close contact with passengers would be put into supported isolation.
The Department of Health also explained that each of the seven coaches had one medic – dressed in specialist protective gear – onboard in the unlikely event any passengers developed symptoms during the journey.
The UK passengers were taken to the Merseyside hospital to be housed in an NHS staff accommodation block with access to the internet.
Patients disembarked from behind barriers covering the accommodation entrance, but some could be seen inside wearing masks as they walked upstairs to their rooms for the next fortnight.
They are being given fully-furnished rooms, food, laundry facilities and have access to a team of medical staff who will closely monitor their condition.
Kitchens are available for those who wish to self-cater, and families are being kept together, with games consoles, toys and cots provided.
The UK first declared its first cases of the coronavirus earlier today and the country is now on high alert for more possible infections. Two people believed to be Chinese tourists staying in York are now being treated at Royal Victoria Infirmary in Newcastle.
British citizens arrive at Arrowe Park Hospital in Wirral, Merseyside after being evacuated from coronavirus-hit Wuhan and flown back to RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire
Bus drivers and passengers are still without facemasks, despite the infection being highly contagious. Although it is not confirmed any of the evacuees have the virus
A motorcade of coaches containing British citizens flown out of Wuhan arrive at Arrowe Park Hospital in Wirral, where they will be quarantined today
While one medic wears a protective Hazmat suit, the bus driver sat next to him does not wear any mask at all
A source at Horseman, the company operating the coaches, said the Department of Health was instructing its employees.
They told MailOnline: ‘I want to make clear, we have been instructed by the [Department of Health]. Our drivers are not making decisions. They are being told what to do.’
The emergency flight took off after the Government yesterday rustled together arrangements for British citizens trapped inside Wuhan.
The city, which is bigger than London and home to 11million people, has no public transport and closed roads, while shops and businesses are closed under lockdown.
The passengers will all have had medical testing before boarding the plane and any who showed signs of sickness would have been turned away at the airport and left in China.
It is understood that nobody who arrived at the airport with a seat booked was turned away because of their health.
England’s deputy chief medical officer Dr Jenny Harries said: ‘Everybody who has got on the plane is a well passenger.
‘If any of those passengers do show symptoms there are set procedures to isolate them during any process and remove them in any part of the journey.’
Photos from the runway at RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire show paramedics, coach drivers and other staff greeting and even shaking hands with the passengers, who are on their way to be quarantined for two weeks
Passengers are greeted by workers on the runway – one of the British workers appears to shake hands with a passenger while another is not wearing a mask
One worker standing by the plane is pictured without a mask, as passengers carrying luggage make their way across the runway to the coaches taking them to the Wirral
Ambulances, one police van, and a police car are pictured surrounding the Wamos Airlines flight as it landed at the Oxfordshire base
A British worker helping passengers of the plane does not appear to be wearing a face mask
Photo shows a bus driver without protective equipment driving one of a convoy of six buses out of Brize Norton this afternoon – the driver is flanked by a medical worker in a full-body hazmat suit
Another bus driver is seen without protective equipment
Military personnel waiting on the runway for the passengers can be seen without protective equipment
People standing beside an ambulance waiting for the passengers are seen without face masks or protective equipment of any kind
A police van is pictured close to the runway, with two passengers in the background. An airport worker and a police officer can also be seen
A bus driver wearing a face mask and a hi vis jacket on top of his camouflage hoodie as he escorts the Wamos Airlines staff away from the plane
One of the passengers onboard the flight posted on Instagram as the plane was coming into land. They then followed up the post with the caption: ‘The infected are coming’
A man and woman are seen on the runway wearing masks after getting on the flight
Wamos Airlines staff are pictured at the RAF base with face masks on
Police and paramedics are on standby near the plane, which will be carrying more than 100 people who could be infected with the coronavirus
COACH DRIVERS ‘WILL NOT BE QUARANTINED’ AFTER EVACUATION
Reading coach firm, Horseman, has sent at least seven buses to RAF Brize Norton to pick up the evacuated passengers from China.
The coaches are being driven by drivers employed by the company, all of whom agreed to do the job.
The company refused to say whether the drivers would be quarantined afterwards, but said the buses would be ‘deep cleaned’.
The Horseman Coaches spokesman told the PA news agency: ‘The Department for Health have procedures in place for the vehicles to be deep cleaned.
‘That is part of the process of this undertaking, which will happen as soon as the vehicles are clear. I can give everybody assurance that everything will be cleansed sufficiently.’
The spokesman declined to comment on whether or not the drivers – staff members of Horseman Coaches – would also have to be put in isolation.
‘I can’t comment any further on that I’m afraid,’ he said.
A Department of Health spokesperson told MailOnline the drivers ‘will be wearing the appropriate PPE [personal protective equipment]’ but could not confirm they would be isolated.
Horseman Coaches is a private coach hire company operating throughout Reading, Wokingham, Bracknell, Maidenhead, Slough, West Berkshire and across the south east carrying more than 9,000 passengers each day, according to the company’s website.
But there remains a possibility that passengers on the flight, who include holidaymakers and expats who were living in China, are infected with the virus.
It can take up to two weeks, or potentially more, for symptoms to appear so people may not know they are infected.
For this reason, the passengers will all be isolated in an accommodation apartment building at Arrowe Park.
Staff at the hospital are reportedly furious that they weren’t told this would be happening, with many only finding out on the news rather than from their bosses.
Two Labour MPs from Wirral, Angela Eagle and Alison McGovern both said on Twitter that they had not been told either.
One unnamed nurse at Arrowe Park told the Liverpool Echo: ‘Most staff heard it on the news first which is terrible, panic is the word I would use. At least warn your staff before the news. The Wirral population are worried also.’
Jane Godman, from the Wirral, wrote on Twitter, ‘Decision to have a coronavirus quarantine centre at Arrowe Park Hospital on the Wirral is bizarre.
‘One of the busiest hospitals in the North West, with a maternity unit, in a built up area, 170 miles from where the Wuhan plane lands. Who decided this and why?’
People in Oxfordshire have told MailOnline they’re similarly concerned about the passengers being taken there.
Roads in and out of Brize Norton have been closed while the operation takes place and local residents have even reported being unable to enter the village.
Clive Manners, 44, was one of a number of shoppers buying hand wash and ibuprofen at a local Asda.
He told MailOnline: ‘I’m just taking precautions because I’m worried what might happen if any of the people on the plane test positive for coronavirus.
‘There are already two cases in Britain and now there could be more.
‘It’s madness to bring these people into Oxfordshire and then take them across the country, where they will be quarantined. What lunatic thought of that? It’s a very dangerous thing to do and puts us all at risk.’
All roads into Brize Norton village have been closed. Police set up road blocks telling motorists that they will reopen once the evacuees have boarded their coaches and left the area
This picture shows how the hand wash section at the ASDA in Brize Norton has been emptied amid fears about the Wuhan evacuation flight landing in the village
Dean Foxton, 35, who lives in Witney, just five miles from the RAF base said: ‘I looked at the advice on how to prevent catching the coronavirus.
‘I’m going to buy as much handwash as I can. I was thinking of getting a mask but will look a bit silly in one, so I’ll give that a miss.
‘It’s ludicrous that these people are being flown into our local RAF base from Wuhan. Why not take them somewhere more remote or closer to where they will be in quarantine?
‘People are scared about what could happen and how the coronavirus could spread in Britain, but the government have handled it all appallingly.’
The UK’s first cases of coronavirus were confirmed this morning in two people who are believed to have been staying at a hotel in York.
They were diagnosed overnight and transferred to Newcastle’s Royal Victoria hospital earlier today.
In Newcastle they are being kept in isolation under the care of specialist medics in an infectious disease unit.
The Wamos Airlines plane is pictured flying over a village in Oxfordshire on its way to RAF Brize Norton
The Wuhan evacuation flight, which left the deserted Chinese city at 9.45am local time (1.45am GMT), is pictured on the runway at RAF Brize Norton
An armed soldier stands guard at RAF Brize Norton this morning
Military personnel are seen guarding the gate at Brize Norton airfield this morning
A fleet of coaches is pictured arriving at RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire today. The buses will carry 83 British passengers to an NHS facility in Wirral, Merseyside
The coach company collecting British passengers arriving on the evacuation flight out of coronavirus-hit China said its vehicles will be ‘deep cleaned’ afterwards
Government officials are trying to work out who the pair – believed to be Chinese citizens – came into contact with during their stay and who they may have contaminated.
Professor Chris Whitty, chief medical officer for England said in a statement this morning: ’We can confirm that two patients in England, who are members of the same family, have tested positive for coronavirus.
‘The patients are receiving specialist NHS care, and we are using tried and tested infection control procedures to prevent further spread of the virus.
‘The NHS is extremely well-prepared and used to managing infections and we are already working rapidly to identify any contacts the patients had, to prevent further spread.
‘We have been preparing for UK cases of novel coronavirus and we have robust infection control measures in place to respond immediately.
‘We are continuing to work closely with the World Health Organization and the international community as the outbreak in China develops to ensure we are ready for all eventualities.’
Scientists had been expecting a case to be diagnosed here for more than a week, since it became clear how widely the virus was spreading.
Almost 10,000 people in 24 countries and territories have now been diagnosed with the Wuhan coronavirus and 213 people have died, all in China
Evacuees heading back to the UK from China today landed at RAF Brize Norton and will be taken by bus to the Wirral, where they will be kept in isolation for two weeks
Police in hazmat suits are pictured on the runway at Brize Norton today
WHAT DO WE KNOW ABOUT THE DEADLY CORONAVIRUS IN CHINA?
Someone who is infected with the Wuhan coronavirus can spread it with just a simple cough or a sneeze, scientists say.
At least 213 people with the virus are now confirmed to have died and more than 9,900 have been infected in at least 21 countries and regions. But experts predict the true number of people with the disease could be 100,000, or even as high as 350,000 in Wuhan alone, as they warn it may kill as many as two in 100 cases. Here’s what we know so far:
What is the Wuhan coronavirus?
A coronavirus is a type of virus which can cause illness in animals and people. Viruses break into cells inside their host and use them to reproduce itself and disrupt the body’s normal functions. Coronaviruses are named after the Latin word ‘corona’, which means crown, because they are encased by a spiked shell which resembles a royal crown.
The coronavirus from Wuhan is one which has never been seen before this outbreak. It is currently named 2019-nCoV, and does not have a more detailed name because so little is known about it.
Dr Helena Maier, from the Pirbright Institute, said: ‘Coronaviruses are a family of viruses that infect a wide range of different species including humans, cattle, pigs, chickens, dogs, cats and wild animals.
‘Until this new coronavirus was identified, there were only six different coronaviruses known to infect humans. Four of these cause a mild common cold-type illness, but since 2002 there has been the emergence of two new coronaviruses that can infect humans and result in more severe disease (Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) coronaviruses).
‘Coronaviruses are known to be able to occasionally jump from one species to another and that is what happened in the case of SARS, MERS and the new coronavirus. The animal origin of the new coronavirus is not yet known.’
The first human cases were publicly reported from the Chinese city of Wuhan, where approximately 11million people live, after medics first started seeing infections on December 31.
By January 8, 59 suspected cases had been reported and seven people were in critical condition. Tests were developed for the new virus and recorded cases started to surge.
The first person died that week and, by January 16, two were dead and 41 cases were confirmed. The next day, scientists predicted that 1,700 people had become infected, possibly up to 7,000.
Just a week after that, there had been more than 800 confirmed cases and those same scientists estimated that some 4,000 – possibly 9,700 – were infected in Wuhan alone. By that point, 26 people had died.
By January 27, more than 2,800 people were confirmed to have been infected, 81 had died, and estimates of the total number of cases ranged from 100,000 to 350,000 in Wuhan alone.
By January 29, the number of deaths had risen to 132 and cases were in excess of 6,000.
Where does the virus come from?
Nobody knows for sure. Coronaviruses in general tend to originate in animals – the similar SARS and MERS viruses are believed to have originated in civet cats and camels, respectively.
The first cases of the virus in Wuhan came from people visiting or working in a live animal market in the city, which has since been closed down for investigation.
Although the market is officially a seafood market, other dead and living animals were being sold there, including wolf cubs, salamanders, snakes, peacocks, porcupines and camel meat.
Bats are a prime suspect – researchers at the Chinese Academy of Sciences said in a recent statement: ‘The Wuhan coronavirus’ natural host could be bats… but between bats and humans there may be an unknown intermediate.’
And another scientific journal article has suggested the virus first infected snakes, which may then have transmitted it to people at the market in Wuhan.
Peking University researchers analysed the genes of the coronavirus and said they most closely matched viruses which are known to affect snakes. They said: ‘Results derived from our evolutionary analysis suggest for the first time that snake is the most probable wildlife animal reservoir for the 2019-nCoV,’ in the Journal of Medical Virology.
So far the fatalities are quite low. Why are health experts so worried about it?
Experts say the international community is concerned about the virus because so little is known about it and it appears to be spreading quickly.
It is similar to SARS, which infected 8,000 people and killed nearly 800 in an outbreak in Asia in 2003, in that it is a type of coronavirus which infects humans’ lungs.
Another reason for concern is that nobody has any immunity to the virus because they’ve never encountered it before. This means it may be able to cause more damage than viruses we come across often, like the flu or common cold.
Speaking at a briefing in January, Oxford University professor, Dr Peter Horby, said: ‘Novel viruses can spread much faster through the population than viruses which circulate all the time because we have no immunity to them.
‘Most seasonal flu viruses have a case fatality rate of less than one in 1,000 people. Here we’re talking about a virus where we don’t understand fully the severity spectrum but it’s possible the case fatality rate could be as high as two per cent.’
If the death rate is truly two per cent, that means two out of every 100 patients who get it will die.
‘My feeling is it’s lower,’ Dr Horby added. ‘We’re probably missing this iceberg of milder cases. But that’s the current circumstance we’re in.
‘Two per cent case fatality rate is comparable to the Spanish Flu pandemic in 1918 so it is a significant concern globally.’
How does the virus spread?
The illness can spread between people just through coughs and sneezes, making it an extremely contagious infection. And it may also spread even before someone has symptoms.
It is believed to travel in the saliva and even through water in the eyes, therefore close contact, kissing, and sharing cutlery or utensils are all risky.
Originally, people were thought to be catching it from a live animal market in Wuhan city. But cases soon began to emerge in people who had never been there, which forced medics to realise it was spreading from person to person.
There is now evidence that it can spread third hand – to someone from a person who caught it from another person.
What does the virus do to you? What are the symptoms?
Once someone has caught the virus it may take between two and 14 days for them to show any symptoms – but they may still be contagious during this time.
If and when they do become ill, typical signs include a runny nose, a cough, sore throat and a fever (high temperature). The vast majority of patients – at least 97 per cent, based on available data – will recover from these without any issues or medical help.
In a small group of patients, who seem mainly to be the elderly or those with long-term illnesses, it can lead to pneumonia. Pneumonia is an infection in which the insides of the lungs swell up and fill with fluid. It makes it increasingly difficult to breathe and, if left untreated, can be fatal and suffocate people.
What have genetic tests revealed about the virus?
Scientists in China have recorded the genetic sequences of around 19 strains of the virus and released them to experts working around the world.
This allows others to study them, develop tests and potentially look into treating the illness they cause.
Examinations have revealed the coronavirus did not change much – changing is known as mutating – much during the early stages of its spread.
However, the director-general of China’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Gao Fu, yesterday said the virus was mutating and adapting as it spread through people.
This means efforts to study the virus and to potentially control it may be made extra difficult because the virus might look different every time scientists analyse it.
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