'My family don't want me to go back': Blackpool professor 'unable to return to Chinese university because of coronavirus outbreak'

A Blackpool professor back home for the winter break said he is unable to return to his Chinese university because of the coronavirus outbreak.

Prof Peter Hughes, 60, who teaches civil engineering and English at Henan Polytechnic University, flew home on January 14 when he said "everything was normal".

Prof Peter Hughes, 60, who teaches civil engineering and English at Henan Polytechnic University, with some of his students (Picture courtesy of Professor Peter Hughes)

Prof Peter Hughes, 60, who teaches civil engineering and English at Henan Polytechnic University, with some of his students (Picture courtesy of Professor Peter Hughes)

But now, with China gripped by the flu-like virus which has killed 80 people, several areas have been locked down.

Prof Hughes said travel to Henan, the province beside Wuhan, the outbreak's epicentre, is now virtually impossible - while he has also been told by students the university has been shut down.

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He said: "I go from Manchester to Zurich, and Zurich to Beijing, and Beijing is not safe to go to. There are no trains to Henan, and all inter-city buses have been cancelled.

Prof Peter Hughes

Prof Peter Hughes

"I heard all the Beijing universities have closed and thought maybe we would follow suit. I've students that are keeping me up-to-date. I'm waiting to be officially told."

Prof Hughes said he will fly to Japan and wait there until he feels it is safe to return to Henan, where he said five confirmed cases - including one death - have been recorded. According to up-to-date data collated by the Johns Hopkins Center for Systems Science and Engineering in America, which has been cited by several media outlets, there have been 128 cases and one death.

Former property worker Prof Hughes, who studied for 10 years at the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) in Preston before moving to Asia, said his three children, who live and work in Blackpool, "don't want me to go back".

He said: "It's a very tricky situation but we will get through it. They are building hospitals and it's in everybody's interest to get it sorted very quickly."

But he added: "I think there will be infections in the UK. It's people my age - the other 60s - who are vulnerable, as well as those with underlying health conditions.

"It looks like it can get a lot worse before it gets better."

Prof Hughes said he is keeping in touch with his students, who returned to their home towns and cities to celebrate Chinese New Year, as well as staff at other universities.

"The students are concerned," he said, and "disappointed" to have to remain home because of the outbreak. He added: "But they trust the Government and leaders to look after them and keep them safe."

The overall number of cases of coronavirus now stands at almost 8,000, with 80 deaths confirmed in China.

The Hubei province, which neighbours Henan, has been on lockdown for several days as China seeks to contain the illness.

More than 50 people had now been tested for the virus in the UK by yesterday, according to the Department of Health (DoH) yesterday, although all tests were returned negative.

The current risk to the public here remains low, the department said, adding that the Government is watching the situation carefully.

England's chief medical officer Prof Chris Witty said there was a "fair chance" cases would emerge in Britain, with the Foreign Office updating its guidance to "advise against all travel to the Hubei province".

The guidance also added: "If you are in this area and able to leave, you should do so."

The Home Secretary, Priti Patel, said the Government was "looking at all options" to help Britons leave Wuhan, which is in the Hubei province, following reports officials have been asked to examine the logistics for an airlift from the city.

One academic said his "best guess" was that 100,000 have been infected with the flu-like virus. Diagnoses have been confirmed in a number of countries, including one in Canada, five in the States, three in France, and five in Australia.

Prof Neil Ferguson from Imperial College London said: "There are very large numbers of Chinese tourists across Europe right now.

"Unless the Chinese manage to control this, and I'm sceptical about whether that is possible, we will get cases here."

It comes as spectators celebrated Chinese New Year in central London, which marks the start of the Year of the Rat.

Authorities in China have cancelled a host of events marking New Year as they expand their measures against the virus.

Meanwhile, health officials are continuing to track down around 2,000 people who have recently flown into the UK from Wuhan.

The DoH confirmed it is trying to find "as many passengers as we can" who arrived from the region in the past two weeks to check on their wellbeing.

It is understood Border Force officers have been recruited to help speed up the search for passengers as testing for the virus continues in the UK.

A public health hub has been set up in Heathrow, staffed by a rotating team of seven clinicians working in shifts to support patients on arrival.

Prof Whitty said following a meeting of the Government's Cobra emergency committee in Whitehall on Friday that the virus looked "a lot less dangerous" than contracting Ebola, the recent coronavirus, Mers and "probably less dangerous" than Sars virus.

But he added: "What we don't know is how far it's going to spread, that really is something we need to plan for all eventualities."

"We all agree that the risk to the UK public remains low, but there may well be cases in the UK at some stage."

"We think there's a fair chance we may get some cases over time.

"Of course this depends on whether this continues for a long time, or whether this turns out to be something which is brought under control relatively quickly."

A spokesman for Blackpool Victoria Hospital declined to comment when asked what measures would be taken in the event of a suspected case there.