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Hong Kong to slash border travel as virus spreads

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Hong Kong has announced plans to slash cross-border travel between the city and mainland China as the new coronavirus continues to spread.

More than 100 people have now died in China, with confirmed infections surging to more than 4,500.

High-speed trains and ferries that cross the border will be suspended from Thursday, Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam announced. She wore a face mask.

The virus has spread across China and to at least 16 countries globally.

On Monday, Germany and Japan confirmed that they had cases involving people who had not travelled to China but caught the virus from someone who had.

This had previously been seen only in Vietnam, which borders China and where someone was infected by his father who had travelled from Wuhan, the city at the epicentre of the outbreak.

Several foreign governments with large numbers of citizens in Wuhan are planning air evacuations.

Wuhan, as well as the wider Hubei province, are already effectively in a lockdown with strict transport restrictions in and out of the area. Wearing masks in public is now mandatory in some Chinese cities.

On Monday, authorities in Beijing confirmed that a 50-year-old man had died – the first fatality in the Chinese capital.

Carrie Lam announced Hong Kong’s new strategy to tackle the virus on Tuesday.

In addition to suspending train and ferry services, flights to mainland China will be halved. People will also no longer be able to receive permits to visit Hong Kong from the mainland.

A hospital workers union had threatened to go on strike unless the government heeded a list of demands, which included tightening the border with the mainland.

The city of seven million – a major financial centre – is part of China but retains significant autonomy.

Tens of millions of people visit from mainland China every year but numbers were down in 2019 because of the pro-democracy protests that rocked the city.

“The flow of people between the two places needs to be drastically reduced” amid the outbreak, said Ms Lam.

Analysts say restricting travel from the mainland to Hong Kong – a major international hub – could help limit the spread of the new coronavirus to other countries.

The new coronavirus is thought to have emerged from illegally traded wildlife at a seafood market in Wuhan.

The number of total cases confirmed by China rose to 4,515 as of 27 January, up from 2,835 a day earlier.

Most of the deaths have been in Hubei province. The initial victims were mostly elderly people or those with pre-existing respiratory problems, but few details have been released about the dozens of deaths confirmed in recent days.

On Tuesday, China agreed for WHO to send international experts to the country as soon as possible to help understand the virus and guide global response efforts.

In another development, a Beijing hospital built in seven days in 2003 to accommodate patients with symptoms of the Sars virus is being refurbished for the coronavirus outbreak, the South China Morning Post reported.

Construction and medical workers have been stationed at Xiaotangshan Hospital on the northern outskirts of the capital for several days, it quoted local sources as saying.

About 4,000 people worked on the building in 2003, reportedly breaking the world record for the fastest construction of a hospital.

A similar hospital is currently being built in Wuhan, with officials hoping to have it finished in six days.

What is the situation internationally?

According to the World Health Organization and national authorities, there have been more than 50 confirmed cases outside China – but no deaths.

  • Fourteen cases: Thailand
  • Six: Japan
  • Five: USA, Australia, Singapore, Taiwan
  • Four: Malaysia, South Korea, France, Germany
  • Two: Vietnam
  • One: Nepal, Canada, Cambodia, Sri Lanka

Three further cases were confirmed in Germany on Tuesday. In Paris, an elderly Chinese tourist is in a serious condition, health director general Jerome Salomon told reporters. Authorities are attempting to find out how many people have been in contact with him.

In Japan, authorities said a bus driver caught the virus after transporting tour groups from Wuhan earlier this month.

Although the emergence of such cases is “not too surprising”, the German case is particularly worrying, said Prof Paul Hunter of the University of East Anglia.

“Because if the Chinese woman was indeed asymptomatic at the time of the training session it would confirm reports of spread before symptoms develop – making standard control strategies less effective.”

Like many countries, the United States has urged its nationals to “reconsider travel” to China. The country plans to fly consular staff and US citizens out of Wuhan in the coming days.

Japan is expecting to evacuate about 200 nationals on a chartered plane on Wednesday, with health workers on board to monitor passengers.

The European Commission announced on Tuesday that it would start helping to repatriate Europeans. There will be two flights from Wuhan to Europe, the first on Wednesday and the second later on in the week.

About 250 French citizens will be on the first flight and more than 100 citizens of other EU countries will be on the second, the Commission said.

France, India and South Korea have also said they plan to airlift citizens out of Wuhan.

The UK is yet to make a similar decision but has urged Britons to leave the area if they can – however this has upset some living in Hubei who complain they are trapped.