Coronavirus could kill half a million people and infect 80 per cent of Britons in a "worst case scenario", a Government document warns.
Vulnerable Britons, including the elderly and people with pre-existing illnesses, would be most at-risk and the NHS would be put under immense pressure if the virus sweeps the UK.
The planning memo warns that four in five Britons – or more than 50million – could be infected by the flu-like virus, also known as Covid-19, which is rapidly spreading across Europe.
Thousands are facing random tests as early detection methods are ramped up at 11 hospitals and more than 100 GP surgeries.
The document was revealed as eight UK schools closed due to coronavirus fears and 1,000 holidaymakers – including dozens of Britons – were trapped at a quarantined hotel in Tenerife.
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The planning memo is called “Covid-19 Reasonable Worst Case Scenario”.
Prepared by the National Security Communications Team, it warns: "For the UK, this could involve up to 80% of the population being infected; however, not all of these people will experience symptoms and the vast majority of cases will be mild disease.
"This is based on the currently available scientific evidence."
It adds: “The current planning assumption is that 2-3 per cent of symptomatic cases will result in a fatality.
"The Government is taking all necessary precautions to protect the public, including engaging with key industry partners to discuss their preparedness planning."
Infection rates would soar for two to three months as the virus spreads.
The document adds: "Covid-19 is a previously unknown virus, which means the global population has little to no immunity to infection.
"There are currently no clinical counter-measures available to treat Covid-19 and a vaccine is unlikely to be available for many months."
It says current treatment focuses on relieving the symptoms of infection "while the patient's body fights against the virus".
Current evidence suggests the elderly and those with underlying health problems are most at risk from coronavirus.
A major outbreak could put more than two million people in hospital and it could lead to closures of public transport, schools, museums, tourist sites and other public buildings.
The Government must prepare for the worst case, but “this does not mean we expect it to happen”, a spokesman said.
The NHS would be unable to cope with a major outbreak and there are fears of a hospital bed shortage, new research has suggested.
Nearly a quarter of patients admitted at hospitals in England in December and January faced delays of more than four hours before a bed was found for them, the BBC reported.
Experts said there is "little in the tank" to cope with coronavirus, as this winter was the most challenging in a generation for the NHS.
In China, hospitals in Wuhan – the epicentre of the outbreak which began in December – were overwhelmed and ran out of beds for patients.
Patients were put in tents set up in car parks and China quickly built a number of hospitals from scratch.
Thousands of Britons face coronavirus screening as the Department of Health ramps up detection methods at 11 hospitals and 100 GP surgeries across the UK.
The tests will provide an "early warning" if the virus is spreading, according to Public Health England.
Meanwhile, schools in the UK are taking drastic action to protect against Covid-19 as the illness continues to spread across Europe amid fears of a global pandemic.
At least eight have closed while others have sent pupils home for fear they may have been exposed to coronavirus during ski trips to northern Italy.
It comes as travellers returning to the UK from northern Italy were told they may need to self-isolate as part of measures to stop the spread of illness.
Authorities in Italy reported on Wednesday that the number of people infected in the country grew to 374 and deaths of patients with the virus rose to 12.
Austria, Croatia, Greece and Switzerland reported their first cases, while Spain recorded new ones, also involving people who had been to northern Italy, and France reported its first death.
The first positive test in South America has been recorded after a 61-year-old Brazilian man who had recently been to northern Italy tested positive, it has been reported.
Meanwhile, Public Health England announced that flu patients will now be assessed for coronavirus to see if it is spreading.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock said official advice has been changed to say people who have been to anywhere in Italy north of Pisa should self-isolate if they develop flu-like symptoms on their return to the UK.
On Tuesday, Cransley School in Northwich, Cheshire, and Trinity Catholic College in Middlesbrough announced they would be closed for the rest of the week.
Both schools said that this was to allow for a "deep clean" after pupils and teachers had returned from ski trips in northern Italy.
Trinity Catholic College said that a "small number of staff and pupils" had started showing mild flu-like symptoms following a ski trip.
Lutton St Nicholas and Gedney Church End primary schools in Lincolnshire also said they had closed "because of a potential connection to the Coronavirus by an individual within the school" and St Christopher's C of E High School in Accrington told parents it would be shut on Wednesday.
Meanwhile, Sandbach High School in Cheshire said students and staff who visited Aprica, in Italy's Lombardy region, were to stay indoors and self-isolate.
A third Cheshire school, Brine Leas School in Nantwich, said its sixth form was closed due to staff shortages following Government advice regarding travel to Italy.
Students from Penair School in Truro, Cornwall, Salendine Nook High School in Huddersfield, Cardinal Heenan Catholic High School in West Derby and Newquay Tretherras in Newquay, have also been advised to stay home after returning from ski trips.
Britons who have been in locked-down regions of Italy – including Lombardy and Veneto – were told they should self-isolate at home for 14 days even if they have no symptoms.
The Foreign Office later updated its travel advice, with a spokesman saying: "We advise against all but essential travel to 10 small towns in Lombardy and one in Veneto, which are currently in isolation due to an ongoing outbreak of coronavirus.
"Any British nationals already in these towns should follow the advice of the local authorities."
Britons were also among the estimated 1,000 guests at hotel in Tenerife who were told to stay in their rooms after an Italian doctor there was diagnosed with coronavirus.
The Italian doctor, who had travelled with his wife, tested positive on Monday and has been placed in isolation in hospital, local media reported.
A Foreign Office spokesman said its staff was offering advice and support to British people at the hotel.
The 108-room Grand Hotel Europa in the Alpine tourist hub of Innsbruck in Austria was sealed off after a receptionist was one of the first two cases of the virus in the country, Reuters reported.
Health ministers from seven European nations have met in Rome to discuss a coordinated response. EU member states have been urged to review their pandemic plans.
The European Commission, which enforces the rule book for the open-border Schengen Area, encouraged countries to adopt measures based on scientific evidence and "in coordination and not in a fragmented way", a spokeswoman said.
Symptoms of Covid-19 include a cough, fever and shortness of breath.
England's chief medical officer, Professor Chris Whitty, said schools could be shut and public transport reduced if coronavirus became a global pandemic.
He said: "There's no secret there's a variety of things you need to look at, you look at things like school closures, you look at things like reducing transport."
Prof Whitty said families could also be asked to self-isolate if one of them had symptoms of the virus.
As of February 25, a total of 6,795 people have been tested in the UK with 13 positive cases.
The Department of Health also added Iran, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Burma and parts of northern Italy to the list of places where travellers need to follow clinical advice.
China has reported 78,064 cases and 2,715 deaths, while South Korea has the second highest number of cases with 1,261 and 11 deaths.
Early on Wednesday the US military said one of its soldiers based in South Korea has also tested positive for Covid-19.
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