China has today admitted it was too slow to react to the coronavirus outbreak which has sparked a global panic and left at least 213 people dead – amid claims that Beijing could be covering up a higher death toll.
The secretary of the ruling Communist party in Wuhan admitted he felt ‘remorse’ over the outbreak, saying the virus’s impact ‘would have been less’ if measures had been taken sooner.
The killer virus has spread around the world with the first cases confirmed in Britain confirmed today as governments scramble to close their borders and retrieve their worried citizens from Wuhan.
China has since imposed a drastic quarantine on Wuhan, where the virus is believed to have jumped from wild animals at a city market and infected humans.
Officials today raised the death toll to 213 with nearly 10,000 people infected, but there are fears that the official figures are ‘way too low’ – sparking claims of a cover-up.
Crematorium workers in the city claim that bodies are being sent from hospitals without being added to the official record.
William Yang, an East Asia reporter for news site Deutsche Welle, said there were ‘reasons to remain sceptical about what China has been sharing with the world’.
‘While they have been more transparent about certain things related to the virus, they continue to be sketchy and unreliable in other aspects,’ Yang said.
Hong Kong-based news outlet Initium spoke to workers on the mainland who said bodies were being sent for cremation without being properly identified, he said.
‘This means there are patients who died from the virus, but were not added to the official record,’ Yang suggested.
China has taken extreme steps to stop the spread of the virus, including a quarantine of more than 50million people in Wuhan and the surrounding Hubei province.
Few governments could attempt such a feat but the quarantine is made possible by the ruling Communist Party’s extensive controls on society.
Wuhan mayor Zhou Xianwang said today that the task of containing the virus remains ‘severe and complex’ with the number of cases continuing to swell.
City officials have been criticised online for withholding information about the infection until the end of last year, despite knowing about the new illness weeks earlier.
‘Right now I’m in a state of guilt, remorse and self-reproach,’ said Ma Guoqiang, the municipal Communist Party secretary for Wuhan.
‘If strict control measures had been taken earlier, the result would have been better than now,’ he told an interview with state broadcaster CCTV.
Nonetheless the Chinese ambassador in Geneva today said there was no need for ‘unnecessary panic’ or ‘excessive measures’.
The death toll was hiked on Friday to 213 after 43 new deaths, all but one in Hubei. Most deaths have been elderly people.
China’s National Health Commission also said Friday that 1,982 new cases had been confirmed, bringing the total to 9,692.
That exceeds the 8,096 cases from SARS, a similar outbreak that spread to more than two dozen countries in 2002-03 and killed 774 people.
Another 102,000 people are under medical observation in China with possible symptoms.
China has suspended schools nationwide and extended the Lunar New Year holiday in an effort to limit people travelling.
Thousands of foreigners have been trapped in Wuhan since it was sealed off last week, and countries have been scrambling to arrange evacuation flights.
A British charter plane from Wuhan landed at RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire today carrying 83 UK citizens and 27 others.
The UK also confirmed its first two cases of coronavirus, with two patients being treated at a specialist medical facility in Newcastle.
France today airlifted around 200 of its citizens from the city, who will be placed under two-week quarantine back home.
One of the returning French citizens was ‘directly transferred to hospital’ with possible symptoms of coronavirus infection, officials said.
A total of 18 South Korean evacuees who arrived from the Chinese city of Wuhan have been hospitalised after showing symptoms, Seoul’s health authorities said today.
In addition, Hong Kong unions have threatened strikes unless the border with mainland China is closed to stop the spread of coronavirus.
Unions say workers on the Hong Kong metro are ‘in a panic’ because of the risk of being infected while at work.
Hospital workers’ union HAEA has also called for the entire border to be closed, saying strike action could begin as early as next week.
The crisis poses a fresh challenge for Hong Kong’s embattled leader Carrie Lam, who has so far resisted calls to shut the border.
However, the high-speed rail service to mainland China and all cross-border ferry services have been suspended since midnight last night.