The Chinese president has described the accelerating spread of coronavirus as a grave situation, as cities from the outbreak’s epicentre in central China to Hong Kong scramble to contain an illness that has infected more than 1,200 people and killed 41.
Xi Jinping’s remarks came at a meeting of Communist Party leaders convened on Lunar New Year – the country’s biggest holiday which has seen celebrations muted – to underline the government’s urgent and expanding efforts to control the outbreak.
Millions of people travelling during the holiday have fuelled the spread of the outbreak nationwide and overseas after it began in the city of Wuhan. The vast majority of the infections and all the deaths have been in mainland China, but fresh cases are popping up.
Australia and Malaysia reported their first cases on Saturday, and Japan confirmed its third. France confirmed three cases on Friday, the first in Europe, and the US identified its second.
In Wuhan, its 11 million residents are already in lock-down and a ban on most vehicle use, including private cars, in central areas will begin on Sunday.
Only authorised vehicles carrying supplies and for other needs will be permitted to travel.
It is understood the city will assign 6,000 taxis to different neighbourhoods, under the management of resident committees, to help people get around if they need to.
In Hong Kong, leader Carrie Lam said her government will raise its response level to emergency, the highest one, and close primary and secondary schools for two more weeks on top of next week’s Lunar New Year holiday. They will now reopen on February 17.
In a sign of the growing strain on Wuhan’s health system, the official Xinhua news agency reported the city plans to build a second makeshift hospital with about 1,000 beds.
The city previously announced construction of a hospital of the same size that is expected to be completed by February 3.
The new virus comes from a large family of what are known as coronaviruses, some causing nothing worse than a cold. It causes cold and flu-like symptoms, including cough and fever, and in more severe cases, shortness of breath. It can worsen to pneumonia, which can be fatal.
China cut off trains, planes and other links to Wuhan on Wednesday, as well as public transport within the city, and has steadily expanded a lock-down to 16 surrounding cities with a combined population of more than 50 million.
The Lunar New Year holiday began on Saturday in the shadow of virus precautions. Authorities cancelled a host of planned festivities and closed major tourist destinations.
Temples locked their doors, Beijing’s Forbidden City and Shanghai Disneyland closed, and people cancelled restaurant bookings ahead of the holiday – which is normally a time of family reunions, sightseeing trips and other festivities.
People throughout China are regularly wearing masks to restaurants and food shops, where workers dispense hand sanitiser to customers. Some parts of the country have brought in check-points for temperature readings and made masks mandatory.
Of the 41 deaths, 39 have been in Hubei province, where Wuhan is the capital city, and one each in Hebei and Heilongjiang provinces.
Most of the deaths have been older patients, though a 36-year-old man in Hubei died this week.