BEIJING (AFP, REUTERS) - Chinese President Xi Jinping warned China was facing a "grave situation" given the "accelerating spread" of a new virus that has infected nearly 1,975 people across the country and killed 56, state media reported on Saturday (Jan 25).
"Faced with the grave situation of an accelerating spread of the new coronavirus... it is necessary to strengthen the centralised and unified leadership of the Party Central Committee," Xi said, according to official news agency Xinhua.
"As long as we have steadfast confidence, work together, scientific prevention and cures, and precise policies, we will definitely be able to win the battle," Xi told a meeting of the elite Politburo Standing Committee, according to Xinhua.
Xi held a politburo meeting on Saturday on measures to fight the "accelerating" outbreak, state television reported.
The comments come as Chinese authorities scramble to contain the new virus, which first emerged in central Wuhan city, but has spread to at least 30 regions and provinces in China.
Australia confirmed its first four cases on Saturday, Malaysia confirmed four and France reported Europe's first cases on Friday, as health authorities around the world scrambled to prevent a pandemic. Singapore also has four confirmed cases.
The United States is arranging a charter flight on Sunday to bring its citizens and diplomats back from Wuhan, the central Chinese city at the epicentre of the outbreak, the Wall Street Journal reported.
In Hong Kong, with five confirmed cases, the city's leader Carrie Lam said flights and high speed rail trips between the city and Wuhan will be halted. Schools in Hong Kong that are currently on Lunar New Year holidays will remain closed until Feb 17.
As of 8pm local time (8pm, Singapore time) on Saturday, the death toll in China had risen to 42, authorities reported. Some 1,372 people in China had been infected with the virus - traced to a seafood market in Wuhan that was illegally selling wildlife.
The virus has also been detected in Thailand, Vietnam, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Nepal, and the United States.
In Hubei province, where Wuhan is located, officials appealed for masks and protective suits.
"We are steadily pushing forward the disease control and prevention ... But right now we are facing an extremely severe public health crisis," Hu Yinghai, deputy director-general of the Civil Affairs Department, told a news briefing.
The newly identified coronavirus has created alarm because there are still many unknowns surrounding it, such as how dangerous it is and how easily it spreads between people.
It can cause pneumonia, which has been deadly in some cases.
Ride-hailing giant Didi Chuxing said it was halting inter-city services to and from Beijing from Sunday, while the capital will also stop running inter-province shuttle buses.
State broadcaster CCTV, citing an announcement from China's tourism industry association, said the country would halt all group tours, both at home and abroad, from Monday.
Wuhan said it would ban non-essential vehicles from its downtown starting Sunday, further paralysing a city of 11 million that has been on virtual lockdown since Thursday, with nearly all flights cancelled and checkpoints blocking the main roads leading out of town.
Authorities have since imposed transport restrictions on nearly all of Hubei province, which has a population of 59 million.
On Saturday, the country's capital said it would suspend buses that entered and exited the city boundary, on top of closing tourist attractions and cancelling large-scale events during the Lunar New Year holiday.
Australia confirmed its first four cases in two different cities on Saturday, and the country's chief health official said he expected more cases as Australia is a popular destination for Chinese tourists.
State-run China Global Television Network reported on Saturday that a doctor who had been treating patients in Wuhan, 62-year-old Liang Wudong, had died from the virus.
US coffee chain Starbucks said it was closing all its outlets in Hubei province for the week-long Lunar New Year holiday, following a similar move by McDonald's in five Hubei cities.
Workers in white protective suits checked temperatures of passengers entering the subway at Beijing's central railway station on Saturday, while some train services in the eastern Yangtze River Delta region were suspended, the local railway operator said.
'GLOBAL HEALTH THREAT'
There are fears transmission could accelerate as hundreds of millions of Chinese travel during the holiday, although many have cancelled their plans.
Airports around the world have stepped up screening of passengers from China, although some health officials and experts have questioned the effectiveness of such screenings.
In an illustration of how such efforts could miss cases, doctors at a Paris hospital said that two of the three Chinese nationals in France who have been diagnosed with the virus had arrived in the country without showing symptoms.
The World Health Organisation this week stopped short of calling the outbreak a global health emergency.
A report by infectious disease specialists at Imperial College, London on Saturday said that despite this, the epidemic"represents a clear and ongoing global health threat" adding:"It is uncertain at the current time whether it is possible to contain the continuing epidemic within China."
While China has called for transparency in managing the crisis, after cover-up of the 2002/2003 Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome spread, officials in Wuhan have been criticised for their handling of the current outbreak.
In rare public dissent, a senior journalist at a Hubei newspaper run by the ruling Communist Party called on Friday for a "immediate" change of leadership in Wuhan on the Twitter-like Weibo. The post was later removed.
Hubei province, where authorities are rushing to build a 1,000 bed hospital in six days, announced on Saturday that there were 658 patients affected by the virus in treatment, 57 of whom were critically ill.
Shanghai Disneyland was closed from Saturday.
Beijing's Lama Temple, where people make offerings for the new year, has also closed, as have some other temples.