Chinese premier visits virus epicentre as death toll hits 80

Tourists from an Air China flight from Beijing wear protective masks as they arrive at Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris, France, January 26, 2020. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang on Monday visited Wuhan, the epicentre of an outbreak of a new coronavirus that has killed 80 and infected more than 2,700 people, as Beijing sought to signal how seriously it aims to respond to the developing crisis.

The number of deaths from the flu-like virus in Hubei province, including Wuhan city, climbed from 56 to 76 overnight, health commission officials said, with four deaths elsewhere in China. While a small number of cases have been confirmed in more than 10 countries, no fatalities have been reported elsewhere. 

The total number of confirmed cases in China rose about 30% to 2,744, about half of which were in Hubei.

Li, the most senior leader to visit Wuhan since the outbreak began, went to the city to inspect the ongoing efforts to contain the epidemic and spoke with patients and medical staff, China’s government said in a statement.

China’s cabinet on Sunday said it would extend the week-long Lunar New Year holiday by three days to Feb. 2 in a bid to slow the spread of the virus. The Lunar New Year is usually a time for millions of Chinese to travel but many have had to cancel their holiday plans due to virus-related travel restrictions.

Wuhan is already under virtual lockdown and severe limits on movement are in place in several other Chinese cities.

The central city of 11 million people clamped down further on Monday, announcing the immediate suspension of visa and passport services for Chinese citizens until Jan. 30. Despite the restrictions, the mayor of Wuhan said on Sunday that five million people had left the city for holidays and other reasons.

Images from Wuhan showing hospital corridors packed with people seeking treatment have circulated on Chinese social media, along with complaints of soaring prices for essentials such as vegetables.