After initial praise, China still has plenty of coronavirus questions to answer

The World Health Organization has heaped praise on China for its response to Covid-19. At a press conference in Beijing in February, Bruce Aylward, from a joint taskforce sent to Wuhan, went as far as to say the world should thank the Chinese government for its handling of the outbreak.

However, internal WHO documents seen by the Associated Press appear to suggest that behind the scenes there was considerable frustration with the delays and lack of transparency in getting information from the authorities in China.

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A picture has emerged from the first three weeks in January which appears to show that China stalled in sharing information which might have allowed earlier action and intervention.

Its scientists were prevented from sharing the sequencing of the virus and even when it became clear that there was human-to-human transmission, it wasn’t made public until January 20, by which time millions had left Wuhan and were on the move for Chinese New Year.

  • Drone footage of the Wuhan testing facility

In interviews and meeting minutes it seems WHO officials were walking a tight rope, trying to keep China on side but at the same time force it to disclose information which could have mitigated the impact on the rest of the world.

This is no revelation to those who lost loved ones in Wuhan. They’ve been saying for months that they were lied to, that the death of their relatives could have been avoided.

Zhang Hai lost his father to the virus on February 1. His father had worked all his life for the Chinese government, serving in the army and then working on the country’s nuclear programme. Zhang is one of the few who dares to demand answers. He has been followed and threatened by the police and speaking to us in Shenzhen carried the risk of arrest.

Zhang says what the government did in delaying giving information about true extent of the outbreak, is criminal. He is loyal to his country and to the Communist Party but he says he cannot allow those responsible to go unpunished. When it feels safe for him to do so he wants to return to Wuhan and stand before his father's grave and say he fought for truth and justice.

Zhang Hai's father died in hospital in February. Credit: ITV News

Back at the Peking University Hospital in Beijing we spoke to Dr Li Haichao.

He has just returned after two months working on the frontline in Wuhan and two weeks of quarantine in a Government facility. He told us he had called for an earlier lockdown but all decisions had to come from the Government and the Health Commission. He defended the delay in confirming human-to-human transmission, saying it was important to be certain that was the case, and not cause unnecessary fear.

Reflecting on what he has seen in Wuhan and what is going on in the rest of the world, Dr Li said he could never have imagined it would spread on this scale. He will give a lecture to the UK next week and insists that all along there has been transparency and openness from medics and scientists in China.

Dr Li Haichao will present in the UK next week. Credit: PA

Dr Li has shared his experience in Wuhan with counterparts all over the world and in return he is now learning lessons from them. He pointed to the healthcare system in the UK from which China could learn lessons.

There are no GPs or similar community healthcare system and in the early days of the outbreak in Wuhan, when people flooded the hospitals infecting one another, he believes it might have helped if they had smaller community GP surgeries to contact.

It is one of many issues he is now bringing into his teaching at Peking University Hospital. He is also introducing virus control, prevention and treatment studies into the syllabus. He believes mask wearing, temperature testing and other measures introduced during the outbreak are here to stay.

Our cameraman in Wuhan sent us footage of people dancing on the banks of the Yangtze River, groups singing in the park, restaurants buzzing with activity. The city at the centre of a global pandemic appears to have recovered but it has still not reconciled.

Five months on we are still no closer to finding out what caused this outbreak, where it came from, and when. The Chinese government cannot evade those questions for much longer, there are too many families, too many countries now looking for answers.