While eight of the nine patients who tested positive for the virus in the UK have been discharged, public health experts said the odds are that coronavirus, also known as Covid-19, will become a global pandemic.
Professor Robert Dingwall, of Nottingham Trent University, said: “In the worst case scenario of widespread infection, and we cannot rule this out, the NHS would not have the capacity to properly treat everyone.
“This capacity does not exist and has never existed.”
Professor Dingwall, who has previously acted as a government advisor on disease pandemic planning, said: “At the moment there are plans to construct portable buildings so suspected coronavirus patients can have a parallel track through A&E in isolation from other patients.
“However, we may also need to build temporary buildings to increase capacity for patients who need intensive care treatment due to complications.”
The death toll in China was last night 1,523 deaths with 66,492 confirmed cases. Outside mainland China, three deaths have been recorded in Japan, Hong Kong, and the Philippines.
Jonathan Ball, professor of molecular virology at the University of Nottingham, added: “This country has never seen a virus like this.
“There has been too much underplaying of this virus in truth. We now have to start to be honest.
“We probably wouldn’t be well placed to deal with an outbreak. It is too early to say yet, but if I was offered odds I would bet there will be a pandemic which will affect us. China does not have a lid on it. I’ve played down other potential outbreaks in the past, such as Ebola and Zika. Not this.
“We are part of a global health economy and we are not prepared for the worst to happen.”
Yesterday Agnès Buzyn, France’s health minister, confirmed a Chinese tourist aged 80, who had been visiting Paris, was the first confirmed death in Europe.
The man from Hubei province, the centre of the outbreak, had arrived on January 16 and been in intensive care since January 25.
His daughter also tested positive but has recovered and should be discharged soon.
Ms Buzyn said: “This is the first fatality by the coronavirus outside Asia, the first death in Europe.
“We have to get our health system ready to face a possible pandemic propagation of the virus, and therefore the spreading of the virus across France.”
France has recorded 11 cases, including a British boy aged nine, his father and three adults who were staying at an Alpine ski chalet visited by “super-spreader” Steve Walsh, 53, from Brighton, who was en route from a business conference in Singapore.
Another British man who lives in Majorca and was infected at the chalet tested negative on Thursday.
Yesterday Health Secretary Matt Hancock claimed the successful treatment and discharge of the eight patients was “evidence of how well prepared our NHS is to deal with coronavirus”.
More than 100 people remain at the Kents Hill Park hotel in Milton Keynes after arriving in the UK from Wuhan last Sunday. So far 2,992 people have had tested negative for the virus in the UK.
Speaking at a conference in Germany, the World Health Organisation chief Tedros Ghebrey-esus said it was impossible to tell where the epidemic will spread but was “concerned by the continued increase in the number of cases in China” and “about the potential havoc this virus could wreak in countries with weaker health systems.”
On Friday Africa confirmed its first case when a man, 33, from abroad tested positive in Egypt and was quarantined.
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesman said last night: “The UK is a world leader in preparing for and managing disease outbreaks.
“Everyone can continue to play their part by taking simple steps such as washing hands to prevent the spread of infection and calling NHS 111 instead of going to A&E if they have concerns.”