China reported 143 more deaths from coronavirus on Saturday but a dip in new cases, while the government announced new anti-disease measures.
Some 2,641 new cases of the virus were reported in the 24 hours to midnight on Friday, raising the total to 66,492. Mainland China’s death toll rose to 1,523.
The number of new cases was down from the 5,090 in the previous 24-hour period after authorities changed the basis for counting patients.
Health experts said that will make it harder to judge the effectiveness of anti-disease controls which have cut off most access to some major cities and closed factories and offices.
Numbers of new cases have fluctuated over the past two weeks. That fuelled optimism that the disease which first emerged in December might be under control, but also brought warnings that such hopes are premature.
The Beijing government announced measures aimed at preventing the virus from spreading as millions of workers crowd into planes, trains and buses to return to densely populated Chinese cities following the Lunar New Year holiday.
The holiday was extended to keep factories and offices closed, but officials have been ordered to revive business activity as economic losses mount.
Most access to the central city of Wuhan, where the first cases were reported in December, was suspended on January 23. Controls spread to cities with a total population of 60 million people. Restaurants, cinemas and other businesses were closed nationwide to prevent crowds from gathering.
Under the new measures, people returning to Beijing will have to isolate themselves at home for 14 days A notice published by state media late on Friday said people who fail to comply will face legal consequences but gave no details.
He Qinghua, of the China Centres for Disease Control appealed to travellers to check themselves and report others who have symptoms.
Covid-19, a disease stemming from a new form of coronavirus, has spread to more than two dozen countries. On Friday, Egypt reported the first infection on the African continent.
On Thursday, the number of new cases reported by authorities in Hubei province, where Wuhan is located, reached 15,152.
That included 13,332 diagnosed by doctors’ analyses and lung imaging instead of the previous standard of laboratory testing. Health authorities said the new method would facilitate earlier treatment.
Nine more temporary hospitals have opened in gymnasiums and other public buildings, with 6,960 beds in Hubei province, where Wuhan is located, the National Health Commission announced. It said they were treating 5,606 patients with mild symptoms.
Meanwhile, the ruling Communist Party is trying to restore public confidence following complaints that leaders in Wuhan suppressed information about the disease. The party faced similar criticism after the 2002-03 outbreak of Sars (severe acute respiratory syndrome).
The party should “strengthen areas of weakness and close up loopholes” after the epidemic exposed “shortcomings and deficiencies”, President Xi Jinping said at a meeting of party leaders on Friday, according to state media.
The ruling party has replaced officials in charge of Hubei and Wuhan and tried to deflect criticism by allowing state media and members of the public online to criticise local officials.
Last month, residents of Wuhan shared videos online showing people being turned away from crowded hospitals. Some said on the popular Sina Weibo microblog service that family members showed symptoms but could not get tests.
Extended closures of factories and businesses prevented a flood of travel after the Lunar New Year holiday, normally the Chinese industry’s busiest season, officials said at a news conference.
Total volume of daily travellers is down 80% from last year, according to deputy transportation minister Liu Xiaoming.
“We believe there will be no peak passenger flow for return journeys,” he said.
Anti-disease measures are causing losses so severe that economic forecasters have cut their outlooks for China’s growth this year.
The state-owned banking industry has provided more than 537 billion yuan (£59 billion) in credit to industries such as retail, catering and tourism that have been hurt most, according to Liang Tao, vice chairman of the China Banking and Insurance Regulatory Commission.
Also this weekend, a team of World Health Organisation experts were due to begin a mission in China.
“Particular attention will be paid to understanding the transmission of the virus, the severity of the disease and the impact of ongoing response measures,” said WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus in a statement.
Later, he told a gathering of international foreign and security policy leaders in Germany that the WHO is encouraged there has not yet been widespread transmission outside China and that “the steps China has taken to contain the outbreak at its source appear to have bought to the world time”.
“We’re encouraged that an international team of experts is now on the ground working closely with Chinese counterparts to understand the outbreak,” he told the Munich Security Conference.
But he said the agency is “concerned by the continued increase in the number of cases in China,” and by reports about the number of health workers who have been infected or died.
“We’re concerned by the lack of urgency in funding the response from the international community,” Dr Tedros said.
“We must use the window of opportunity we have to intensify our preparedness,” he added. “China has bought the world time. We don’t know how much time.”
In Japan, the US Embassy said it was preparing to fly home Americans quarantined on board the cruise ship Diamond Princess in Yokohama, near Tokyo. It said they will go into quarantine in the US.
They will fly to Travis Air Force Base in California and some will fly on to Lackland Air Force Base in Texas, said an embassy statement. It said no-one with symptoms would be allowed to board the flight.
So far, 285 people from the ship have tested positive for the virus.
Japan’s Health Ministry allowed 11 passengers to disembarkon Friday. It said passengers above 80 years of age, those with underlying medical conditions and those who stayed in windowless cabins during the 14-day quarantine can move to a facility on shore.
In Indonesia, 285 men, women and children who flew home from Wuhan were released after a two-week quarantine on remote Natuna Island. The group included 47 flight crew members.
Meanwhile, France’s health minister announced the first coronavirus death in Europe.
Agnes Buzyn said on Saturday: “I was informed last night of the death of an 80-year-old patient who had been hospitalised … since January 25.”
The patient, a Chinese tourist from the province of Hubei, had a lung infection caused by the Covid-19 virus.
He arrived in France on January 16, and was admitted to hospital on January 25 under strict isolation measures. His condition deteriorated rapidly.
His daughter was also admitted to hospital but authorities said she is expected to recover.