Virus ability to spread 'getting stronger' as death toll in China rises

The coronavirus outbreak has accelerated its spread in China with 56 deaths so far - and the country's health minister says "the ability of the virus to spread is getting stronger" and the illness is infectious for longer than first thought.

Chinese President Xi Jinping called the outbreak a grave situation, and the government stepped up efforts to restrict travel and public gatherings while rushing medical staff and supplies to Wuhan, the epicentre of the outbreak, which remains on lockdown.

Health minister Ma Xiaowei declined to estimate how long it would take to bring the situation under control, but said travel restrictions and other strict measures should bring results "at the lowest cost and fastest speed".

He added that the ability of the virus to spread is getting stronger and accelerating, and that the disease is infectious before symptoms start to show.Mr Ma added that the disease is spreading faster than the SARS virus which originated in China and killed more than 800 people in 2003.

A man wearing a face mask rides a nearly empty subway train in Beijing. Credit: AP

The US consulate in Wuhan announced on Sunday that it will evacuate its personnel and some private citizens aboard a charter flight, while Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe says he is making arrangements to fly Japanese people home as well.

The British Government has refused to commit to evacuation of Britons from the province.

Speaking on Sunday morning, Cabinet minister Stephen Barclay said the Foreign Officer "continues to monitor" the "fast-moving" situation which would be "kept under review".

Video footage captured in Wuhan by resident Lin Wenhua shows a city shut off from the outside world, as he travels through empty streets of the city.

On the third day of lockdown, Wuhan's usually bustling streets, malls and other public spaces were unnervingly quiet, and masks were mandatory in public.

He said: "It is the third day of lockdown. It has been raining for the past three days.

"With all the negative information spreading online, those who have to be locked at home are under tremendous pressure.

"They are fearful and anxious, but more people are facing the situation in a positive way."

Shoppers wearing face masks pay for their groceries at a supermarket in Wuhan Credit: Chinatopix via AP

The latest figures reported on Sunday morning cover the previous 24 hours and mark an increase of 15 deaths and 688 cases for a total of 1,975 infections.

Cases have also been found in Thailand, Japan, South Korea, the US, Vietnam, Singapore, Malaysia, Nepal, France, Australia and Canada.

At least 52 people have been tested for the coronavirus in the UK but no cases have been confirmed.

Britons have been advised against travel to Hubei province by the Foreign Office.

The guidance also added: “If you are in this area and able to leave, you should do so.

"This is due to the ongoing novel coronavirus outbreak.”

However, this has angered some expats who say they cannot leave as Wuhan and many other surrounding cities have been on lockdown for several days in a bid to stop the coronavirus spreading.

"To me, that shows a huge lack of understanding on the situation here," British expat Kharn Lambert told ITV News.

"We cannot get out of the city, we cannot get out of Hubei.

"There is no possible, physical way to get out of this province."

Mr Lambert made clear he and other Brits would be happy to be quarantined in the UK if they returned.

Home Secretary Priti Patel said the UK Government is "looking at all options" to help Britons in Wuhan leave.

"It is right that we look at all options and that's exactly what the Government is doing right now," she told Sky's Sophy Ridge On Sunday programme.

Ms Patel also said the Government agency Public Health England has a hub at Heathrow Airport as part of Britain's efforts to prevent the spread of the virus

Public Health England has a hub at Heathrow Airport, Priti Patel has said. Credit: PA

Peter Openshaw, professor of experimental medicine at Imperial College London, told ITV News "we are bound to see" coronovirus cases in the UK.

"We need to be concerned but not alarmed, at this moment we have very good pandemic plans in place in the UK - some of the best in the world - and we need to stick to those plans and do everything we can to slow this one down."

He added China's response to the virus had been "amazing" and said "it would very hard for any other country to react so fast and so hard.

"They have done an amazing job in coming up with a lot of information very, very quickly and they have been enormously open," Professor Openshaw said.

A notice from the US embassy in Beijing said there would be limited capacity to transport US citizens on the Tuesday flight from Wuhan that will go directly to San Francisco.

It said in the event there are not enough seats, priority will be given to to individuals “at greater risk from coronavirus”.

French car maker PSA Group said it will evacuate its employees from Wuhan, quarantine them and then bring them to France.

France’s foreign ministry said it was working on “eventual options” to evacuate French citizens from Wuhan “who want to leave”.

Also on Sunday, two of Hong Kong’s biggest attractions, Hong Kong Disneyland and Ocean Park, announced they were closing for the time being.

Travel agencies have been told to halt all group tours and concern is growing over the potential impact of millions of people travelling back to cities after China’s Lunar New Year holiday ends on Thursday.

A shopper wearing goggles with a face mask and gloves uses a self checkout machine at a supermarket in Wuhan Credit: Chinatopix via AP

In the heart of the outbreak where 11 million residents are already on lockdown, Wuhan banned most vehicle use, including private cars, in downtown areas starting on Sunday.

The city will assign 6,000 taxis to neighbourhoods to help people get around if they need to.

Wuhan plans to build a second makeshift hospital with about 1,000 beds to handle the growing number of patients.

The city said another hospital was expected to be completed by February 3.

Medical workers have been among those infected and Wuhan media reported a doctor died of the virus on Saturday. The 62-year-old worked at the ear, nose and throat department at Hubei Xinhua hospital.

Medical supplies are reportedly being rushed to the city, including 14,000 protective suits, 110,000 pairs of gloves and masks and goggles.

Shoppers wearing face masks in Wuhan Credit: Chinatopix via AP

The National Health Commission said it is bringing in medical teams to help handle the outbreak, a day after videos circulating online showed throngs of frantic people in masks lined up for examinations and complaints that people were turned away at hospitals that were at capacity.

The new virus comes from a large family of what are known as coronaviruses, some causing nothing worse than a cold.

It causes cold- and flu-like symptoms, including cough and fever, and in more severe cases, shortness of breath. It can worsen to pneumonia, which can be fatal.

Around China, authorities cancelled a host of Lunar New Year events, and closed major tourist destinations and cinemas.

Beijing’s Forbidden City and Shanghai Disneyland closed and people cancelled restaurant reservations before the holiday, normally a time of family reunions, sightseeing trips and other festivities in the country of 1.4 billion people.

In Beijing and other cities, most people wore medical masks on buses and the subway or to public places such as grocery stores, where workers dispensed hand sanitiser to customers.

Some parts of the country had checkpoints for temperature readings and made masks mandatory.

Those killed by the virus have mostly been middle-aged or elderly people, sometimes suffering from other conditions that weaken their ability to fight back.