China’s leader on Saturday called the accelerating spread of a new virus a grave situation, as cities from the outbreak’s epicenter in central China to Hong Kong scrambled to stop the spread of an illness that has infected more than 1,200 people and killed 41.
President Xi Jinping’s remarks, reported by state broadcaster CCTV, came at a meeting of Communist Party leaders convened on the Lunar New Year holiday and underlined the government’s urgent and ever-expanding efforts to bring the situation under control.
Travel agencies have also been told to halt all group tours, the state-owned China Daily reported, citing the China Association of Travel Services. Chinese tourists travel both domestically and internationally during the Lunar New Year holidays.
The city of Wuhan, where the outbreak started and its 11 million residents are already on lockdown, banned most vehicle including private cars in downtown areas starting Sunday, state media reported. Only authorized vehicles to carry supplies and for other needs would be permitted after that, the reports said.
The city will assign 6,000 taxis to different neighborhoods, under the management of local resident committees, to help people get around if they need to, the state-owned English-language China Daily newspaper said.
In Hong Kong, city 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 re-open Feb. 17.
Lam said that direct flights and trains from Wuhan would be blocked. The outbreak began in the city in central China and has spread nationwide and overseas, fueled by millions of people traveling during the country’s biggest holiday.
In a sign of the growing strain on Wuhan’s health care system, the official Xinhua news agency reported that the city planned to build a second makeshift hospital with about 1,000 beds. The city previously announced that construction of a hospital of the same size was underway and expected to be completed Feb. 3.
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 Saturday and Japan, its third. France confirmed three cases Friday, the first in Europe, and the U.S. identified its second, a woman in Chicago who had returned from China.
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 case, shortness of breath. It can worsen to pneumonia, which can be fatal.
Most of China’s provinces and cities activated a Level 1 public health alert, the highest in a four-tier system, the state-owned China Daily newspaper reported Saturday.
China cut off trains, planes and other links to Wuhan on Wednesday, as well as public transportation within the city, and has steadily expanded a lockdown to 16 surrounding cities with a combined population of more than 50 million, greater than that of New York, London, Paris and Moscow combined.