LONDON (Reuters) – Prime Minister Boris Johnson said slowing the spread of the coronavirus was now his government’s top priority, shortly after news on Friday that the first British person had died of the disease after contracting it on a cruise ship moored in Japan.
Britons were right to be concerned about the disease, he said as the number of people infected in Britain rose to 19.
“The issue of coronavirus is something that is now the government’s top priority,” he told broadcasters in his first statement on the disease, adding that he would be chairing a meeting of ministers and officials on the subject on Monday.
Mainland China – where the virus originated late last year – reported 327 new cases, the lowest since Jan. 23, taking its tally to more than 78,800 cases with almost 2,800 deaths.
However, the disease is now spreading across the globe, with the first case reported in Nigeria on Friday and 888 people infected in Italy, the worst-affected country in Europe.
Britain reported its first confirmed coronavirus case on Jan. 31 but there have been no deaths in the country so far. The British person who died was in Japan, where the Diamond Princess cruise ship had docked off Yokohama on Feb. 3.
The virus – which causes a disease now called COVID-19 – is transmitted from person to person via droplets when an infected person breathes out, coughs or sneezes. It can also spread via contaminated surfaces such as door handles.
British health officials have urged the public to wash their hands to slow the spread of the disease, and have not recommended the use of face masks common in much of Asia.
Sterling fell sharply on Friday to its lowest level since October 2019, down more than 1% on the day as investors moved their money to safe-haven assets.
Bank of England Governor Mark Carney said at the start of the day that Britain should prepare for economic damage from the virus as it disrupts business supply chains.
Reporting by Guy Faulconbridge and David Milliken; editing by Stephen Addison