China’s president has warned of a “grave situation” facing the country, as the number of coronavirus death jumped to 41 on Saturday.
At the start of China’s biggest holiday, Lunar New Year, the mood across the nation was subdued as the crisis intensified, with the confirmed number of dead rising from 26 to more than 40 in the space of a day.
Major celebrations, including those in the capital of Beijing, have been called off, and Hong Kong has also scrapped planned events aster declaring a virus emergency and restricting links to mainland China.
Australia on Saturday confirmed its first four cases, Malaysia confirmed three and France reported Europe’s first cases on Friday, as health authorities around the world scrambled to prevent a pandemic.
A total of 31 people have now been tested for the virus in the UK, according to the latest statement released by the Department of Health and Social Care on Saturday.
All of the tests have been confirmed as negative, meaning there are not yet any officially recorded cases of the virus in the UK.
But Border Force agents and airlines have been brought in to work with health officials in order to track down the 2,000 people believed to have travelled from Wuhan – where the virus is understood to have originated – to the UK in the past fortnight, so wellbeing checks can be carried out.
The United States is arranging a charter flight on Sunday to bring its citizens and diplomats back from Wuhan.
The 11m people residing in the major city have been told not to leave unless in exceptional circumstances, and all public transport routes have been suspended.
In Hong Kong, with five confirmed cases, the city’s leader Carrie Lam said flights and high speed rail trips between the city and Wuhan will be halted. Schools in Hong Kong that are currently on Lunar New Year holidays will remain closed until February 17.
China’s President Xi Jinping, saying the country is facing a grave situation, held a politburo meeting on measures to fight the outbreak, state television reported on Saturday.
More than 1,300 people have been infected globally, most of them in China, with the virus – traced to a seafood market in Wuhan that was illegally selling wildlife.
Hu Yinghai, deputy director-general of the Civil Affairs Department in Hubei province, where Wuhan is located, appealed for masks and protective suits.
“We are steadily pushing forward the disease control and prevention... But right now we are facing an extremely severe public health crisis,” he told a news briefing.
Vehicles carrying emergency supplies and medical staff for Wuhan would be exempted from tolls and given traffic priority, China’s transportation ministry said on Saturday.
Wuhan said it would ban non-essential vehicles from its downtown starting Sunday, further paralysing a city that has been on virtual lockdown since Thursday, with nearly all flights canceled and checkpoints blocking the main roads leading out of town.
Authorities have since imposed transport restrictions on nearly all of Hubei province, which has a population of 59 million.
The newly-identified coronavirus has created alarm because it is still relatively poorly-understood, and there are a number of urgent questions such as how dangerous it is and how easily it spreads between people that are yet to be answered.
It can cause pneumonia, which has been deadly in some cases.
Containing the virus
Australia confirmed its first four cases in two different cities on Saturday, and the country’s chief health official said he expected more cases as Australia is a popular destination for Chinese tourists.
State-run China Global Television Network reported in a tweet on Saturday that a doctor who had been treating patients in Wuhan, 62-year-old Liang Wudong, had died from the virus.
It was not immediately clear if his death was already counted in the official toll of 41, of which 39 were in the central province of Hubei.
US coffee chain Starbucks said on Saturday that it was closing all its outlets in Hubei province for the week-long Lunar New Year holiday, following a similar move by McDonald’s in five Hubei cities.
Workers in white protective suits checked temperatures of passengers entering the subway at Beijing’s central railway station on Saturday, while some train services in the eastern Yangtze River Delta region were suspended, the local railway operator said.
State-owned CCTV, citing an announcement from China’s tourism industry association, said the country would halt all group tours, both at home and to other countries, from January 27.
The number of confirmed cases in China stands at 1,287. The virus has also been detected in Thailand, Vietnam, Singapore, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Nepal, and the United States.
‘A clear and ongoing global health threat’
There are fears the transmission could accelerate as hundreds of millions of Chinese travel during the Lunar New Year holiday, although many have canceled their plans.
Airports around the world have stepped up screening of passengers from China, though some health officials and experts have questioned the effectiveness of such screenings.
The World Health Organisation this week stopped short of calling the outbreak a global health emergency.
A report by infectious disease specialists at Imperial College, London on Saturday said that despite this, the epidemic “represents a clear and ongoing global health threat” adding “It is uncertain at the current time whether it is possible to contain the continuing epidemic within China”.
While China has called for transparency in managing the crisis, after cover-up of the 2002/2003 Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome spread, officials in Wuhan have come in for criticism over their handling of the current outbreak.
In rare public dissent, a senior journalist at a Hubei provincial newspaper run by the ruling Communist Party called on Friday for a “immediate” change of leadership in Wuhan on the Twitter-like Weibo. The post was later removed.
Hubei province, where authorities are rushing to build a 1,000 bed hospital in six days to treat patients, announced on Saturday that there were 658 patients affected by the virus in treatment, 57 of whom were critically ill.
At a normally festive time of year in China, Sanya, a popular resort destination on the southern island of Hainan, announced that it was shutting all tourist sites. The island’s capital city, Haikou, said visitors from Wuhan would be placed under 14-day quarantine in a hotel.
Shanghai Disneyland was closed from Saturday. Beijing’s Lama Temple, where people traditionally make offerings for the new year, has also closed, as have some other temples.