A planned flight to bring British nationals back to the UK from coronavirus-hit Wuhan will not take place on Thursday while experts are poised to decide whether to declare a global health emergency.
The British Government had anticipated flying around 200 UK citizens out of the country but it is understood Chinese officials have not yet granted permission for the chartered flight to depart.
Meanwhile the World Health Organisation (WH0) emergency committee is expected to meet on Thursday to decide whether to declare an international public health emergency.
The Foreign Office said it was working to secure the flight as soon as possible, with the UK nationals set to be quarantined for two weeks when they arrive back in the country.
A Foreign Office spokeswoman said: “We are doing everything we can to get British people in Wuhan safely back to the UK. A number of countries’ flights have been unable to take off as planned.
“We continue working urgently to organise a flight to the UK as soon as possible.
“We remain in close contact with the Chinese authorities and conversations are ongoing at all levels.”
The WHO said the “whole world needs to be on alert” over the new coronavirus outbreak as it reconsiders whether to declare a global health emergency.
Its emergency committee, which said last week it was “too early” to pronounce a global health emergency, will meet for a second time on Thursday.
Dr Michael Ryan, executive director at the WHO Health Emergencies Programme, said the decision to reconvene was due to the increasing number of cases and evidence of person-to-person transmission of the virus.
He told a press conference in Geneva that the Chinese government deserves “huge credit” for its response and transparency regarding the “extraordinary challenge”.
He said: “The whole world needs to be on alert now, the whole world needs to take action and be ready for any cases that come, either from the original epicentre or from other epicentres that become established.”
The number of cases has jumped to 5,974, surpassing the 5,327 people diagnosed with severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) during the 2002-03 outbreak.
The death toll, which stands at 132, is lower than the 348 people who died in China from Sars.
The first cases in the Middle East have been confirmed as a family-of-four from Wuhan that was visiting the United Arab Emirates.
Four cases have been confirmed in Germany, making it the second European country to report cases after France.
In Australia, officials unveiled plans to evacuate its nationals from Wuhan and Hubei province, with plans to quarantine them in the Christmas Island immigration detention centre.
To date, about 99% of the nearly 6,000 cases are in China.
Dr Ryan estimated the death rate of the new virus at 2%, but said the figure was very preliminary.
Scientists say there are still many questions to be answered about coronavirus, including how easily it spreads and how severe it is.
Britons returning from Wuhan will be put in quarantine for 14 days and officials are looking at taking passengers to a military base once they arrive home, the Department of Health said.
We are working hard to get British nationals back from Wuhan.
Public safety is the top priority.
Anyone who returns from Wuhan will be safely isolated for 14 days, with all neccessary medical attention.
— Matt Hancock (@MattHancock) January 29, 2020
A Downing Street source said it was expecting about 200 British nationals to be returned from Wuhan and they had agreed to be placed in “assisted isolation”.
It came after the Foreign Office updated its advice on Tuesday to warn against all but essential travel to mainland China, saying it may become more difficult for British nationals in other provinces to leave.
On Wednesday, British Airways announced it was suspending all flights to and from mainland China with immediate effect, but Virgin Atlantic said its flights between Heathrow and Shanghai will continue to operate as scheduled.
Meanwhile the World Athletics Indoor Championships in Nanjing, China, have been postponed until March 2021 due to the outbreak, World Athletics has announced.