Coronavirus: Hubei residents rush to leave China virus epicentre as lockdown lifts

People queue to buy train tickets at Yichang East Railway Station in Yichang in China's central Hubei province, on March 25, 2020. PHOTO: AFP

MACHENG, CHINA (AFP) - Huge crowds jammed trains and buses in Hubei province on Wednesday (March 25) as people seized their first chance to travel after two months under lockdown at the epicentre of China's coronavirus outbreak.

Strict curbs on daily life are finally being lifted, allowing healthy people to head home and see loved ones after weeks of separation.

At a railway station in the city of Macheng, AFP reporters saw long lines of people lugging suitcases in the rain as they queued for trains.

Children in masks were among those waiting, while guards directed the crowds and station announcements offered details of trains to destinations across the country.

Footage from state news agency Xinhua showed migrant workers in Huanggang - one of the cities worst-hit by the coronavirus outbreak - queueing for long-distance coaches with bags and suitcases.

One unnamed worker said he was returning to Wenzhou in eastern Zhejiang province.

"I have been at home in Hubei for more than two months," he said.

Railway stations and airports began opening from Wednesday - with the exception of Wuhan, the capital of Hubei, where the virus is believed to have emerged late last year at a food market selling wild animals.

Wuhan will allow residents to leave from April 8, and allow incoming trains to the city from this Saturday. Wuhan airport will resume domestic passenger flights starting the same day, the authorities said, but will not operate flights to and from Beijing.

But 30 highways leading into Wuhan were re-opened as of Wednesday morning, state media said, with videos showing the roads jam-packed.

Hubei natives were also taking the chance to return home.

Ms Guo Wei, a teacher who works in Beijing, told AFP she grabbed the first available ticket back to Macheng on Wednesday morning.

It was the first time she had been able to return since the epidemic started, she said.

"It's been too difficult!" she said, getting off the train with several bags.

A police traffic officer told state broadcaster CCTV she had seen at least two thousand people return to the city by road.

People are now allowed to travel in or out of Hubei as long as they have a "green" health code issued by the authorities showing they are not infected by the virus which has claimed more than 3,200 lives in China.

Beijing ordered the shutdown of Hubei in January to contain the spread beyond the province, but has been gradually easing rules, as numbers have dwindled.

In recent days, residents have been allowed to move about and return to work - although schools remain closed.

At a highway checkpoint outside the Hubei city of Xiaogan, a teacher told Xinhua he was heading back to school in southern Guangdong province.

"I've stayed in Xiaogan for over two months," he said, adding it would take him 14 hours to complete the journey.

"It was only yesterday that we found out we were able to leave Hubei. I'm very happy to be finally returning to work."

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