China has admitted it was too slow to react to the coronavirus outbreak which has sparked a global panic and left at least 213 people dead – amid claims that Beijing could be covering up a higher death toll.
The secretary of the ruling Communist party in Wuhan said the virus’s impact on the world ‘would have been less’ if measures had been taken sooner.
The killer virus has spread around the world with the first cases in Britain confirmed today and governments scrambling to close their borders and retrieve their worried citizens from Wuhan.
China has since imposed a drastic quarantine on Wuhan, where the virus is believed to have jumped from wild animals at a city market and infected humans.
Officials today raised the death toll to 213 with nearly 10,000 people infected, but there are fears that the official figures are ‘way too low’ – sparking claims of a cover-up.
Crematorium workers in the city claim that bodies are being sent from hospitals without being added to the official record.
A man wears a protective mask and swimming goggles after getting off a train in Beijing today, as China admitted it had been too slow to respond to the coronavirus crisis
Medics wearing protective clothing carry a patient to a hospital in Wuhan, the centre of the coronavirus outbreak
A map showing the number of coronavirus cases worldwide, as of Friday afternoon UK time
William Yang, an East Asia reporter for news site Deutsche Welle, said there were ‘reasons to remain sceptical about what China has been sharing with the world’.
‘While they have been more transparent about certain things related to the virus, they continue to be sketchy and unreliable in other aspects,’ Yang said.
Hong Kong-based news outlet Initium spoke to workers on the mainland who said bodies were being sent for cremation without being properly identified, he said.
‘This means there are patients who died from the virus, but were not added to the official record,’ Yang suggested.
China has taken extreme steps to stop the spread of the virus, including a quarantine of more than 50million people in Wuhan and the surrounding Hubei province.
Few governments could attempt such a feat but the quarantine is made possible by the ruling Communist Party’s extensive controls on society.
Wuhan mayor Zhou Xianwang said today that the task of containing the virus remains ‘severe and complex’ with the number of cases continuing to swell.
City officials have been criticised online for withholding information about the infection until the end of last year, despite knowing about the new illness weeks earlier.
‘Right now I’m in a state of guilt, remorse and self-reproach,’ said Ma Guoqiang, the municipal Communist Party secretary for Wuhan.
‘If strict control measures had been taken earlier, the result would have been better than now,’ he told an interview with state broadcaster CCTV.
Nonetheless the Chinese ambassador in Geneva today said there was no need for ‘unnecessary panic’ or ‘excessive measures’.
The death toll was hiked on Friday to 213 after 43 new deaths, all but one in Hubei. Most deaths have been elderly people.
China’s National Health Commission also said Friday that 1,982 new cases had been confirmed, bringing the total to 9,692.
That exceeds the 8,096 cases from SARS, a similar outbreak that spread to more than two dozen countries in 2002-03 and killed 774 people.
Another 102,000 people are under medical observation in China with possible coronavirus symptoms.
A medic in a hazmat suit attends to the body of a man which was found in a street in Wuhan yesterday, in the city at the centre of the coronavirus outbreak
Officials in protective suits gather close to the scene where an elderly man wearing a face mask was found dead in Wuhan on Thursday
Doctors look at a CT scan of a patient at a hospital in Wuhan, which is now under quarantine
China has suspended schools nationwide and extended the Lunar New Year holiday in an effort to limit people travelling.
Thousands of foreigners have been trapped in Wuhan since it was sealed off last week, and countries have been scrambling to arrange evacuation flights.
A British charter plane from Wuhan landed at RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire today carrying 83 UK citizens and 27 others.
The UK also confirmed its first two cases of coronavirus, with two patients being treated at a specialist medical facility in Newcastle.
France today airlifted around 200 of its citizens from the city, who will be placed under two-week quarantine back home.
One of the returning French citizens was ‘directly transferred to hospital’ with possible symptoms of coronavirus infection, officials said.
A total of 18 South Korean evacuees who arrived from the Chinese city of Wuhan have been hospitalised after showing symptoms, Seoul’s health authorities said today.
In addition, Hong Kong unions have threatened strikes unless the border with mainland China is closed to stop the spread of coronavirus.
Unions say workers on the Hong Kong metro are ‘in a panic’ because of the risk of being infected while at work.
Hospital workers’ union HAEA has also called for the entire border to be closed, saying strike action could begin as early as next week.
The crisis poses a fresh challenge for Hong Kong’s embattled leader Carrie Lam, who has so far resisted calls to shut the border.
However, the high-speed rail service to mainland China and all cross-border ferry services have been suspended since midnight last night.
British Nationals arrive at RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire on a rescue flight from Wuhan where people face two weeks in quarantine
A woman cycles near the scene where the body of a man was found outside a furniture store
Workers in China unload a shipment of protective suits from a cargo plane at Wuhan Tianhe International Airport yesterday
The World Health Organisation last night declared a global emergency and many have warned their citizens against travel to China.
Japan today urged its citizens to avoid non-essential travel to China, following similar warnings by Germany, Britain and other nations in recent days.
The United States has gone further, warning against travel to China for any reason.
A series of airlines including British Airways have suspended flights to mainland China because of the outbreak.
Mongolia has halted cross-border traffic with its neighbour China and Russia sealed its remote far-eastern frontier.
Some countries banned entry for travellers from Wuhan, the city in central Hubei province where the virus first surfaced.
Italy and Israel on Thursday barred all flight connections with China, while Papua New Guinea went so far as to bar all visitors from ‘Asian ports’.
A cyclist wears a protective mask in Beijing on Wednesday, with China imposing a quarantine on Wuhan and the surrounding area
Governments around the world have sent mixed messages about whether people should wear masks to fend off the virus.
In China, top medics say that people need to wear masks when taking public transport.
The masks are widely worn in Taiwan’s capital Taipei where the government has imposed purchase limits and an export ban on masks.
The Taiwan Railway Administration said on Friday that if the virus continues to spread it will refuse to carry passengers not wearing masks.
Australia says that healthy people do not need masks, but has nonetheless released a million masks from the national medical stockpile.
Mask supplies have also been running low in Singapore, where authorities have announced plans to give four of them to every household.
The country’s main newspaper plastered a warning – ‘Do not wear a mask if you are well’ – across its front page today.
However, the warning was met with scepticism by some in Singapore who compared the advice to abolishing the army in peacetime.
‘Wearing a mask only when you feel unwell? Then why do you need soldiers when there isn’t war? It’s better to be safe than sorry’, said Kenny Chan Wai Kong.
Commuters with protective facemasks wait to board a canal boat at Pratunam Pier in Bangkok, Thailand, yesterday
In parts of Asia, wearing face masks is common when people are sick or to counter urban pollution.
Official guidance from the World Health Organisation and the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention makes no mention of wearing a face mask, but does not advise against it.
Coronavirus can be transmitted from person to person, although it is not clear how easily.
Most cases have been in people who have been in the Chinese city of Wuhan at the centre of the outbreak, family members of those infected, or medical workers.
Transmission is likely through contact with an infected person via particles in the air from coughing or sneezing, or by someone touching an infected person or object with the virus on it and then touching their mouth, nose or eyes.
Previous research has shown that coronavirus becomes inactive more quickly at higher temperatures, but not immediately.
‘Situations that require a mask are when you are in a crowd…or if you are caring for a sick person,’ said virologist Angela Rasmussen of Columbia University.
‘If it makes you feel better, wear a surgical mask,’ she said on the Reuters Global Markets Forum.
Other experts have said disposable surgical masks may not fit the face tightly enough to prevent infection.
Some have even suggested that incorrect handling of masks such as touching the front could actually increase the likelihood of infection.
In Hong Kong, a lawmaker who chairs the city’s government health services panel was slammed over a short video she posted showing people how to steam and re-use disposable face masks.
More unusual advice has seen India’s government suggest a traditional concoction that includes ginger and holy basil as virus protection.
A Myanmar minister was rebuked for sharing a Facebook post that advised people to eat more onions.
Some overseas Chinese have been buying masks to send to friends and relatives in China, where some stocks have been running out.
Chinese citizens living in Vietnam, Thailand and Malaysia sent 150,000 masks back to their home province of Gansu on Thursday, China’s Xinhua news agency reported.