Beijing has ordered people returning to the city from holidays to quarantine themselves for 14 days to try to contain the coronavirus spread, as the death toll in China from the outbreak passed 1,500.
On Saturday, the country’s National Health Commission said 2,641 new cases were confirmed in the previous 24 hours, taking the total number of confirmed infections across mainland China to 66,492. There were also 143 deaths in the 24 hours to midnight on Friday, taking total fatalities from the virus to 1,523.
The official Beijing Daily newspaper said people failing to obey government orders to quarantine themselves on return from the holidays would be punished. But it was not immediately clear how that would be enforced, or whether the restrictions would apply to non-residents or foreigners arriving from abroad.
Beijing has a population of more than 20 million people and the annual National People’s Congress, where thousands of Communist Party delegates pour into the city, is due to start on 5 March.
“From now on, all those who have returned to Beijing should stay at home or submit to group observation for 14 days after arriving,” Beijing’s virus prevention working group said in a notice cited by the Beijing Daily.
“Those who refuse to accept home or centralised observation and other prevention and control measures will be held accountable under the law,” it said.
A National Health Commission official Liang Wannian told a news conference the government would continue to try to contain the spread of virus in the city of Wuhan in Hubei province – the centre of the outbreak. The commission was focused on lowering the fatality rate and reducing the infection rate, Liang said.
The number of deaths in Hubei rose by 139 as of Friday, with 107 of those in Wuhan. A total of 1,123 people in Wuhan had died from the coronavirus.
Wang Hesheng, the new head of Hubei’s Health Commission, vowed to find and treat everyone affected by the virus, the state-run Global Times said.
Wang was one of several high-level appointees flown in to Hubei province in the past week to take over from sacked local officials. It followed public anger over the death in Wuhan of whistleblower doctor, Li Wenliang, who succumbed to the virus.
China has been struggling to get the world’s second largest economy going after the lunar new year holiday, which was extended by 10 days to help contain the virus. The Global Times reported that China’s banks have offered $77bn in lines of credit to help combat the epidemic. The central government has also pumped tens of billions into the country’s financial system.
Meanwhile the White House economics advisor, Larry Kudlow, said he expected the virus to “maybe” knock 0.2-0.3% off the US GDP in the first quarter.
The number of trade fairs, sports events and industry conferences in China and overseas that have been affected by the spread of the virus continued to increase.
International Business Machines Corp (IBM) said on Friday it had canceled its participation in the RSA cyber security conference in San Francisco at the end of February due to coronavirus-related concerns.
Earlier, Facebook said it had cancelled its global marketing summit scheduled for next month, also in San Francisco, over worry about the same risks.
The Mobile World Congress (MWC), the annual telecoms industry gathering in Barcelona, was also cancelled after a mass exodus by exhibitors linked to the coronavirus.
Organisers of next week’s gymnastics World Cup in Melbourne said on Saturday the entire Chinese team had pulled out due to travel restrictions.
A top Chinese official, in an interview with Reuters, acknowledged that the coronavirus was a huge challenge, but defended the government’s management of the epidemic and lashed out at the “overreaction” of some countries.
State Councillor Wang Yi, who also serves as China’s foreign minister, said China had taken decisive measures to fight the epidemic, many going beyond international health regulations and World Health Organization (WHO) recommendations.
“Through our efforts the epidemic is overall under control,” he said.
Outside mainland China, there have been nearly 450 cases in some 28 countries and territories, and three deaths. Japan confirmed its first coronavirus death on Thursday.
One person has died in Hong Kong and one in the Philippines.
The virus is killing about 2% of those infected, but has spread faster than other respiratory viruses that emerged this century.
A WHO-led joint mission with China will start its outbreak investigation work this weekend, focusing on how the new coronavirus is spreading and its severity, WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said.
Reuters contributed to this report