People returning to New Zealand from China have been putting themselves into quarantine out of fear of spreading coronavirus.

Heightened concern around the flu-like virus - which has so killed more than 40 people and infected hundreds more - has also now prompted New Zealand public health authorities to begin searching arriving passengers for any signs of it.

The city of Wuhan, at the centre of the outbreak, has shut down public transport and advised people not to leave the area.

Millions of people are affected and Chinese New Year celebrations have been cancelled in some parts of the country.

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China's President Xi Jinping has called the accelerating spread of a new virus a grave situation, as his country moves to deal with the escalating crisis.

Jeff He, a member of the Auckland Wuhan community, was aware of several recently-returned people who were isolating themselves for two weeks.

"There are no checks at the border, and we need to be prepared, I think. As a minimum, we need thermal scanners so we can check peoples' temperatures and whether they have any fever," he said.

"The Chinese community here are very concerned, we all know each other, and we know who has come back recently. While the death rate is not that high, we know it spreads so fast."

This afternoon, Health Minister David Clark said extra measures had now been put in place after the disease arrived in Australia, where there are now four confirmed cases.

From tomorrow, staff would be meeting all flights from China, looking for signs among passengers, and offering advice and assistance.

"Despite not having had any cases in New Zealand, the ministry has an Incident Control Team in place and we are sharing information and working closely with international partners," Clark said.

The Government's Interagency Pandemic Group had also been convened as a precaution, to ensure New Zealand was prepared.

"I'm advised that the risk of an outbreak in New Zealand remains low, but we are increasing our health response at the border as a precaution," he said.

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"In addition, as previously indicated, on Tuesday I will take a paper to Cabinet which will make the novel coronavirus a notifiable disease.

"I want to assure the public that New Zealand is well prepared for these sorts of situations – we are active and alert, but not alarmed."

There were no travel restrictions in place, although the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade was now advising New Zealanders to avoid non-essential travel to Hubei Province due to the outbreak.

Up until now, health advice cards - asking people to seek medical attention if they became sick within a month of arriving here - had been placed at international points of entry to the country.

The World Health Organisation wasn't recommending thermal screening for the virus.

Otago University Professor of Public Health Michael Baker, said with an "exponential" rise of the epidemic inside in China – and the growing number of cases being detected in other countries – it was now time for New Zealand to be rolling out the second level of its pandemic plan.

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Chinese health officials in hazmat suits at the airport in Beijing check the body temperatures of passengers arriving from the city of Wuhan. Photo / AP
Chinese health officials in hazmat suits at the airport in Beijing check the body temperatures of passengers arriving from the city of Wuhan. Photo / AP

That was the "keep it out" part of the plan – which was designed for when there was "sustained human to human transmission" of a novel influenza virus, and set out to "prevent, or delay to the greatest extent possible" its arrival in New Zealand.

The plan had been set at the "readiness stage", whose objectives were to "plan and prepare to reduce the health, social and economic impact", since it was activated earlier this month.

"Because the keep it out component only works if there is a window of opportunity you can use it before you have sustained transmission in New Zealand," he said.

"If it behaves like Sars - and no one really knows whether it is as controllable is Sars – we need those vital public health measures of case identification, isolation of cases, and contact tracing.

"Clearly, now is the time for this phase of the plan to be rolled out very vigorously."

Of those Chinese people self-quarantining, Baker said that if they'd been in areas where there had been high rates or transmission, or in direct contact with infected cases, quarantine would be "a good option".

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"The difficulty is that many people who have been exposed may not be aware because the illness may have few symptoms - particularly in young healthy people. Whether there should be a limitation is something that the Ministry of Health should disseminate guidelines on."

National's health spokesman Michael Woodhouse today also hit out at the Government's response to date, claiming it had been "missing in action".

"Schools will be going back soon and that means an influx of international students will be coming, yet the Government has failed to provide any reassurance or information on how this will be managed to parents and students."

Woodhouse questioned whether those health services that would likely see the first New Zealand cases – namely GP clinics – were prepared or protected enough.