China tightens airport checks as imported coronavirus cases tick up

Medical workers check patients who recovered from the coronavirus as they arrive to be tested again at a hospital in Wuhan, China, on March 14, 2020.
Medical workers check patients who recovered from the coronavirus as they arrive to be tested again at a hospital in Wuhan, China, on March 14, 2020.PHOTO: AFP

SHANGHAI/BEIJING (REUTERS) – China tightened checks on international travellers arriving at Beijing airport on Sunday (March 15), after the number of imported new coronavirus infections surpassed locally transmitted cases for a second day in a row.

China, where the epidemic began in December, appears to now face a greater threat of new infections from outside its borders as it continues to slow the spread of the virus domestically.

Over a hundred countries have reported infections.

Mainland China reported 20 new cases of infections on March 14, up from 11 cases a day earlier, data from the National Health Commission (NHC) showed on Sunday.

Of those, 16 were imported, it said.

Beijing has redirected all international flights that were scheduled to land at its new Daxing International Airport to Beijing Capital International Airport, and as of Sunday has cordoned off a special area to process these passengers, the state-backed Beijing News reported.

Travellers who are transiting through Beijing to other destinations will be given special assistance, it said.

Beijing’s moves follow that of Shanghai, also a key hub for international flights to China, which stepped up airport screening last week, resulting in some passengers saying they had to wait as long as seven hours.

Of the 16 latest imported cases, 5 were found in the capital Beijing and three in Shanghai. The provinces of Zhejiang, Gansu and Guangdong respectively reported four, three and one cases.

Three of the cases in Beijing involved travellers from Spain while one came from Italy and the other from Thailand. 

The Shanghai case involved a Chinese native who lived in the Italian city of Milan. 

The Gansu government said one of its cases was linked to a charter flight from Iran while the others were travellers from Saudi Arabia. Zhejiang province did not say where its four imported cases were from.

Underlying growing concerns over these imported cases, the southern province of Guangxi has said it will provide a cash incentive of 3,000-10,000 yuan (S$606-$2,019) to people who provided clues on anyone who had travelled in from abroad but not abided by quarantine rules.

Mainland China’s only locally transmitted new infections on Saturday were in Wuhan, the epicentre of the outbreak, which recorded four cases. It was the tenth consecutive day that the Hubei province recorded zero new infections outside Wuhan. 

PUSH TO RESTART

China is making efforts to restart work cross its factories and businesses, which had been halted amid virus-related curbs, as the numbers of new infections fall further. 

Central Hubei was locked down in January, placing some 56 million people under quarantine, but the number of cases has declined in recent weeks. 

Provincial authorities in Hubei on Saturday loosened restrictions that had prevented people from leaving their residential compounds and villages freely. 

“All the (administrative authorities) in urban communities and village areas that are classified as low risk have removed closed management,” said Mr Liu Dongru, deputy director of the Hubei Health Commission on Sunday, referring to a previous policy of blocking entrances to communities and monitoring residents’ movements. 

The province had announced last Tuesday that people in medium-and low-risk areas would be able to travel within the province. 

There is no indication that people can leave the province, and the measures also did not appear to loosen restrictions in Wuhan.

Meanwhile, some cities in the country with no infections in recent days, such as Shanghai and Hangzhou, have started opening tourist attractions, restaurants and gyms. 

The western region of Xinjiang also plans to reopen schools in batches starting from Monday, state media reported.  Limitations, however, remain in place. 

Beijing, for instance, has allowed restaurants to start re-opening but requires them to prevent diners from eating meals while directly facing each other and tables must be spaced a metre apart, the Xinhua news agency said.

Saturday’s figures bring the total number of confirmed cases in mainland China so far to 80,844. 

The death toll from the outbreak in mainland China reached 3,199 as of the end of Saturday, up by 10 from the previous day. All 10 deaths occurred in Wuhan, the NHC said.

China came in for criticism at home and globally over its early response to the outbreak, but its draconian efforts at control, including the lock-down of Wuhan and Hubei province, have been effective at curbing the spread.

The government has in recent days been trying to burnish its credentials as a responsible power by sharing expertise and equipment with countries seeing a surge in cases, but still faces some calls for accountability at home.