Chinese authorities have shut down transport networks in Wuhan, the city at the heart of the outbreak of a Sars-like virus, to try to contain the deadly disease as 100m people throughout the country prepare to travel for the lunar new year.
Authorities in Wuhan, China’s seventh largest city with 11m people, suspended transport links out of the area starting 10am on Thursday. That prompted holidaymakers to form long queues at the airport during the night as they tried to leave Wuhan before the measure took effect.
At the train station on Thursday morning, rows of police wearing face masks blocked passengers from leaving the city except in special circumstances while the city’s hospitals were struggling to cope with patients seeking to be tested for the disease. According to residents, shelves at convenience stores were already empty while long queues formed outside petrol stations.
The coronavirus has killed 17 and infected at least 571 in China, state media said. Human-to-human transmission of the virus was confirmed this week. The shutting down of Wuhan just before the lunar new year break, when up to 3bn trips are expected to be made, was a drastic measure — the Chinese equivalent of locking down Chicago on Thanksgiving.
The disease is believed to have originated in December in a seafood market in Wuhan where wild animals were reportedly also sold but has now spread across the globe to Hong Kong, Thailand, Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, Macau and North America. US authorities confirmed the first case on American soil on Tuesday while another case has been reported in Mexico. But the World Health Organization on Wednesday postponed a decision on whether to declare an international public health emergency.
WHO said it required further information, after a 15-member emergency committee meeting of disease experts was split on the matter. It promised an update on Thursday. International health regulations stipulate that an outbreak can be so designated if it is an “extraordinary event” that poses a cross-border risk and demands an international response, such as enhanced surveillance. Previous global health emergencies include the 2014-2016 Ebola epidemic in west Africa and the 2015 Zika outbreak in Latin America.
WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus praised Chinese authorities for acting swiftly and decisively, as well as sharing information promptly. He acknowledged the Wuhan lockdown was a “very, very strong measure” but did not elaborate on whether the WHO advocated it. “Since we have a team on the ground, we will get more information on the actions being taken,” he said.
Direct flights from Wuhan to the UK are now subject to “enhanced monitoring” by medical staff who will check if passengers are unwell, its department of health said. The outbreak was now at its most critical stage of prevention and control, China’s National Health Commission said on Wednesday morning in Beijing, as the nation of more than 1.4bn people prepared to celebrate the lunar new year, often called the spring festival, which begins on Friday.
The holiday over the next two weeks leads to the largest mass movement of people in the world. The outbreak has brought to mind China’s Sars crisis in 2003, which was initially covered up by authorities. That outbreak killed 800 people as it spread around the region. T
his time round, officials in Beijing have signalled a high degree of urgency in controlling the outbreak of the coronavirus, even posting veiled threats against anyone seeking to conceal important information about the virus. Sophia Chan, Hong Kong’s food and health secretary, told local media on Wednesday that a 39-year-old man from Wuhan, who had arrived in the semi-autonomous Chinese territory by high-speed rail, had shown “highly suspicious” signs of having contracted the virus.
Banks have issued travel advice to employees. HSBC, Hong Kong’s biggest lender, has stopped short of banning travel to Wuhan but has advised staff to exercise caution and remain vigilant when travelling.