Hong Kong said on Tuesday it would “temporarily” close some of its borders with mainland China and stop issuing travel permits to Chinese tourists as the death toll from the Wuhan coronavirus jumped to 107 and reached at least 14 foreign countries.
The drastic move to halt high-speed rail links from Jan 30, cut flights from China by half and suspend cross-border ferry services joined a chorus of alarm around the world at the rapid spread of the virus, which is a similar pathogen to Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) which killed 800 globally in 2003.
Carrie Lam, the city’s embattled chief executive, whose popularity is already at an all-time low from eight months of pro-democracy protests, eventually buckled to widespread political pressure and public demands to limit transit from the mainland.
The announcement comes after the number of infections in China soared overnight by nearly 60 percent to more than 4,500. With tour groups from the mainland already suspended, the new measures blocking individual travelers will dramatically reduce the number of Chinese able to visit the semi-autonomous city.
The virus, which is believed to have begun in a seafood market in Wuhan, a city of 11 million in the central Hubei province, has now spread to all provinces bar Tibet, prompting unprecedented lockdowns of multiple major cities, and severe curbs on transport systems and public gatherings.
The financial hub has declared the new coronavirus a public emergency and on Saturday ramped up measures to reduce the risk of more infections. Eight people in Hong Kong are known to be suffering from the illness. Of those, six arrived via the high-speed train line that connects the city to the Chinese mainland.
However, major checkpoints on the land border with the neighboring mainland Chinese city of Shenzhen will still be open. Sports centers, grounds, swimming pools, beaches, campsites, and sites, including museums, will all close. The city’s Leisure and Cultural Services Department said events at these locations would be canceled until further notice.
Authorities have also announced that all schools will extend their Lunar New Year holiday to mid-February, and civil servants have been told to work from home.
Over the weekend, China has urged its citizens to postpone trips abroad, but millions had already embarked on trips for the Lunar New Year or business in the weeks and days before Wuhan was completely sealed off.
Public health officials from the U.S. and China have warned people to expect many more infections. The disease can be transmitted by people who are showing no symptoms, and a top British infectious disease specialist said Monday that the actual number of cases around the world could already be close to 100,000.