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China to lift travel curbs on Hubei province, including Wuhan, despite new 'imported' cases

People wear masks at a main shopping area after the city's emergency alert level for coronavirus disease (COVID-19) was downgraded, in Shanghai, China March 23, 2020.
People wear masks at a main shopping area after the city's emergency alert level for coronavirus disease (COVID-19) was downgraded, in Shanghai, China March 23, 2020. © REUTERS/Aly Song

China's central Hubei province, where the deadly coronavirus first emerged late last year, is to lift travel curbs after two months under lockdown, local officials said Tuesday, though they warned that the country was still at risk from sporadic infections as well as those from overseas. 

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Healthy residents will be allowed to leave the province from midnight Tuesday, while Wuhan, the initial epicentre of the pandemic, will lift restrictions from April 8. 

The restrictions were announced as Britain and New Zealand joined nations in Europe, the Middle East, North America and Asia in declaring countrywide lockdowns in an effort to staunch the flow of new infections.

Mi Feng, spokesman for China’s National Health Commission, told a press briefing that "prevention and control work could still not be relaxed".

China does not include asymptomatic or presymptomatic patients in its overall case list, prompting concerns on social media that potentially infectious people might cause new outbreaks once travel restrictions are eased.

However, Wu Zunyou of the China Center for Disease Control and Prevention told the briefing that there was no risk they would become a new source of transmission for the virus, saying that the such cases have also been isolated.

China reported 78 new cases of the deadly coronavirus on Tuesday, with the vast majority brought in from overseas.

The first new case in nearly a week was also reported in Wuhan -- the epicentre where the virus emerged last year -- along with three other local infections elsewhere in the country.

Seven more people died, the National Health Commission said, all in Wuhan.

Fears of imported cases

But at 74, the imported cases confirmed Tuesday were the highest since officials started reporting the data at the beginning of March, and nearly double those reported Monday.

In recent days almost all the new infections in China have been brought in from overseas, and Beijing is growing increasingly anxious about an influx just as it appeared to be bringing the country's outbreak under control.

As nations across the globe battle to contain the pandemic, which has now killed more than 16,000 people worldwide, the tally of imported cases in China has soared to 427.

Many cities have brought in tough rules to quarantine new arrivals, and all Beijing-bound international flights are being diverted to other cities where they will be screened for the virus.

State media warned Tuesday of a second wave of infections, with the nationalistic Global Times warning on its front page that "inadequate quarantine measures" mean a second wave of infections is "highly likely, even inevitable".

There have now been over 81,000 cases in China, and the death toll has reached 3,277.

As the country tries to control imported cases, there are signs of normality beginning to return to Wuhan and the surrounding Hubei province, where some 56 million people were placed under lockdown in January.

Travel and work restrictions in the province have been gradually eased and Chinese President Xi Jinping made his first visit to Wuhan earlier this month.

Wuhan residents considered healthy can now move around the city and take public transport if they show identification, and they can also go back to work if they have a permit from their employer.

‘We are not helpless bystanders’

World Health Organization (WHO) chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warned that the global pandemic was clearly accelerating.

The number of coronavirus deaths worldwide has topped 16,200, with more than 360,000 declared infections in 174 countries and territories, according to an AFP tally.

Tedros said it took 67 days from the beginning of the outbreak in China in December for the virus to infect the first 100,000 people worldwide.

In comparison, it required only 11 days for the second 100,000 cases and just four days for the third 100,000, he said.

Tedros acknowledged that many countries were struggling to take more aggressive measures because of a lack of resources but said "we are not helpless bystanders.

"We can change the trajectory of this pandemic," he said.

There are 1.7 billion people under coronavirus lockdown worldwide.

There was a glimmer of hope Monday in figures from Italy, the European ground zero of COVID-19.

New infections in the continent's hardest-hit country dipped to just shy of 5,000, down from over 6,500 on Saturday.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP and REUTERS)

 

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