Travel curbs mount on China as virus toll rises

by Reuters
Saturday, 1 February 2020 14:34 GMT

* U.S. imposes border curbs on foreigners who have been in China

* Lunar New Year holidays draw to an end

* Russia to use part of armed forces for evacuation

* More flights cancelled after travel curbs ramped up

* Apple says to close China stores temporarily

By David Stanway and Winni Zhou

SHANGHAI, Feb 1 (Reuters) - China faced mounting isolation from international travel curbs and flight suspensions on Saturday as the death toll from a spreading coronavirus outbreak rose to 259.

The epidemic has led to mass evacuations of foreign citizens and risks exacerbating a slowdown in growth in the world's second-largest economy. Russia said its aerospace defence forces - part of the armed forces - would begin flying its citizens out on Saturday.

Inside China, Hubei province, the epicentre of the outbreak, was under a virtual quarantine, with roads sealed off and public transport shut down. Elsewhere, local authorities placed growing restrictions on travel and business.

China's National Health Commission said there were 2,102 new confirmed infections in China on Friday, bringing the total to 11,791. Around two dozen other countries have reported another 137 cases. The death toll rose by 46 to 259.

The Chinese data would suggest it is less deadly than the 2002-03 outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), which killed nearly 800 people of the some 8,000 it infected, although such numbers can evolve rapidly.

In Beijing, counters were set up at the entrances of housing estates, where volunteers wearing red arm bands and masks noted down details of residents coming back from their hometowns after the Lunar New Year holiday.

"As long as I am properly protected and don't go to crowded places, I don't feel scared at all about my hometown or Beijing," said a 58-year-old migrant worker surnamed Sun.

Others were more worried.

"There will be a huge number of people returning to the city. I think it will put Beijing at risk of more infections," said Zhang Chunlei, 45, another returning migrant worker.

In Hubei, the provincial government extended the holiday break to Feb. 13 in a bid to contain the outbreak, the Hubei Daily reported.

The World Health Organization, which this week declared the outbreak a public health emergency of international concern, has said global trade and travel restrictions are not needed.

But Singapore and the United States announced measures on Friday to ban foreign nationals who have recently been in China from entering their territories.

EVACUATIONS

Australia followed suit, with Prime Minister Scott Morrison saying the country would deny entry to all foreign nationals travelling from mainland China from Saturday.

"We're in fact operating with an abundance of caution in these circumstances so Australians can go about their daily lives with confidence," Morrison told reporters in Sydney.

Qantas Airways Ltd and Air New Zealand said travel bans forced them to suspend their direct flights to China from Feb. 9. All three major U.S. airlines said on Friday they would cancel flights to mainland China.

Many nations have put on charter flights to repatriate citizens from China and then place them in isolation for around two weeks, the incubation period of the virus. More than 300 South Koreans arrived home on Saturday and Indonesian officials said around 250 nationals were being evacuated from Hubei.

Britain said it was withdrawing some staff from its embassy and consulates in China.

"In the event that the situation deteriorates further, the ability of the British Embassy and Consulates to provide assistance to British nationals from within China may be limited," the UK government said in a statement.

Many of the private clinics catering to foreigners in China have started to turn people with fevers away, raising concerns among expats that they would have to rely on local facilities.

"I don't want to go to the local hospital with a sore throat only to catch something else," said Czech national Veronika Krubner in Tianjin, who is considering leaving the country with her 21-month-old daughter.

DISRUPTIONS

Infections have jumped in two cities flanking Wuhan, raising concerns that new hot spots are emerging despite strict travel restrictions.

In one of them, Huanggang, authorities asked households to designate one individual who can leave the home, a local newspaper said. The city has a population of about 7.5 million. The mayor said there could be a significant rise in confirmed cases this weekend.

The northern city of Tianjin, home to some 15 million, suspended all schools and businesses until further notice.

Efforts to contain the virus risk slowing growth in China. Growth had already fallen in the fourth quarter to a 30-year low of 6%. The virus impact prompted Capital Economics to almost halve its estimate for first-quarter growth to 3% from 5.7%.

China's central bank said the impact was temporary and economic fundamentals remained sound, but it would increase monetary and credit support, including lowering lending costs for affected companies.

Apple Inc said on Saturday it would close all of its official stores and corporate offices in China until Feb. 9, the latest of dozens of major companies, including Sweden's IKEA and Walmart Inc, restricting travel and operations due to the outbreak.

(Reporting by Winni Zhou, Brenda Goh and David Stanway in Shanghai, Judy Hua, Se Young Lee, Yilei Sun and Gabriel Crossley in Beijing, Scott Murdoch in Hong Kong, Joori Roh in Seoul an Nick Mulveney in Melbourne; Writing Mark John and Lincoln Feast; Editing by Neil Fullick, Andrew Heavens and Nick Macfie)

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