The Chinese government will begin relaxing restrictions on travel to and from Hubei province, the origin of the coronavirus pandemic, in an important milestone in the country’s two-month battle against the health crisis.
The Hubei Health Commission announced that the liberalisation will begin on Wednesday and initially apply to all areas of the province except for Wuhan, the provincial capital, where the travel ban will stay in place until April 8.
The announcement comes two weeks after President Xi Jinping visited the city, in a signal that the Chinese government felt it had reached a turning point in the effort to control the outbreak.
One Chinese medical researcher, who asked not to be identified, said Mr Xi’s trip had signalled that “the first stage of control and prevention work was done”. But he added that “we shouldn’t let down our guard . . . if not managed properly the situation could fluctuate”.
The Hubei Health Commission added that the measures had been approved by the central government. Last month, the head of the commission, as well as the Chinese Communist party’s top officials responsible for Hubei and Wuhan, were fired for mishandling the initial response to the outbreak.
The global spread of coronavirus has crippled the global economy, with new infections rising exponentially in Europe and the US.
Both Italy and the US are on track to record more officially confirmed infections than China in coming weeks. The Italian government has already reported more than 6,000 deaths from the highly contagious respiratory disease, or almost twice the number in China.
But China, which has an official tally of 81,171 cases, does not include positive tests of people who do not exhibit symptoms. If asymptomatic cases were included, its official tally would be about 50 per cent higher.
In the US, health experts are warning about the possible emergence of “multiple Wuhans” if new lockdown measures in states including California and New York are not strictly enforced or abandoned.
Over recent days nationwide lockdowns and curfews have been implemented in the UK and India. Other countries and territories, including Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan, have issued bans on all tourist arrivals over worries about a potential second wave of infections arriving with individuals who have travelled abroad.
With Chinese health authorities now reporting no new cases of locally transmitted cases on an almost daily basis, attention has also turned to preventing fresh outbreaks triggered by so-called imported cases as Chinese nationals and expatriates return to the country.
Beijing is diverting international flights to other cities where people must pass screening checks before they are allowed to continue on to the capital for a 14-day quarantine.
While some Chinese provinces and cities have set dates for schools to reopen, the Hubei Health Commission said schools would remain closed. Beijing has also not said when classes will be allowed to resume.
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