Chinese premier Li Keqiang has warned local governments not to cover up new cases of Covid-19, as low daily rates of infection prompted the relaxing of travel restrictions in Hubei province, where the pandemic started.
Li’s comments came as analysts questioned the veracity of China’s claims that the nation has had several days with no new domestic cases.
Speaking to a meeting of the central leading group responding to the outbreak on Monday, Li urged officials to report honestly on the number of cases, and “not cover up reports for the sake of keeping new case numbers at zero”.
Li said worldwide analysis of the virus showed the virus was unlikely to dissipate like Sars.
He warned that while the epidemic in Hubei and Wuhan had essentially been stopped, there were still risks of sporadic outbreaks.
“[We] Have to realise the prevention measure – ‘early detection, reporting, isolation and treatment’, to stop the epidemic in certain areas and prevent an even bigger outbreak.”
For several days now China has reported few or zero new domestic cases of Covid-19 infection, claiming success in controlling the outbreak which just one month ago saw thousands of confirmations a day.
However, residents and analysts have questioned the near-zero rate of community transmissions, expressing concern that the Chinese government is prioritising economic recovery over total virus containment. Allegations of new infections in Wuhan have persisted, as have reports of manipulation of figures and refusals by Chinese authorities to record asymptomatic cases.
The low figures have led Chinese authorities to lift stringent travel restrictions in Hubei, effectively freeing millions of people from two months of extraordinary lockdown.
On Wednesday residents of Hubei, outside of Wuhan city, were able to travel out as long as they had a “green code” health designation. Wuhan’s ban on travel will lift on 8 April.
Ms Tang, a 25-year-old Xiaogan resident, said she didn’t feel optimistic about the lifting of restrictions.
“I have been out there, there were still some people in the street, but definitely fewer than usual. I think travel is actually very risky. I’m worried that patients who have been discharged get tested positive later, and the zero case [declaration by the government] may be false,” she told the Guardian.
Tang said her main concern was finding a new job in the next few months, and reuniting with her boyfriend who wasn’t in Xiaogan when the lockdown was announced.
“But for the time being, we won’t [see each other]. After all, there are still many people who we’d have contact with along the way, and there are still risks.”
Wuhan resident, Steven Hsu was visiting his wife’s family in Xiaogan when the lockdown went into force. He told the Guardian they weren’t allowed outside for the first four weeks, and then were able to apply for health certificates and permits to travel back to Wuhan, but he continued to work remotely.
“It’s been two months since then,” he said.
“Now we are waiting for the roadblock in Wuhan to be released, which will hopefully be in a few days, then we will drive home.”
Hsu said his family feared the risk of infection from people who were asymptomatic, and that they were still staying at home except for antenatal visits to the hospital with his pregnant wife.
“There are already many people in the general hospital in the country today, most of them wearing masks. I could see that everyone is still very cautious for the moment.”
As China loosens its containment measures, the US risks becoming the new centre of the pandemic.
President Donald Trump has claimed the US is nearing the end of its fight against the virus, despite the World Health Organisation warning it is in grave danger of a rapid escalation in the severity of its situation.
Trump flagged a deadline for restarting the US economy by Easter at odds with his own health experts, and despite rhetoric to the contrary, has privately appealed to Europe and Asia for help in containing the virus.
The number of cases in the US is likely to be far greater than the 54,964 confirmed so far. The WHO said 85% of cases reported in the last 24 hours were in Europe or the US.
According to figures from Johns Hopkins University, which has been tracking the pandemic, more than 422,652 people had confirmed diagnoses of Covid-19 on Wednesday. 18,901 people have died and 108,349 people have recovered.
In other developments:
India has started its first day in lockdown. 1.3bn Indian people – a fifth of the world’s population – will have to stay home for the next 21 days. Prime minister Narendra Modi told citizens and residents to “forget what going out means”.
India has also banned the export of anti-malarial drugs which are being tested for efficacy against Covid-19.
United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres urged leaders of the worlds 20 major industrialised nations on Tuesday to adopt a wartime plan including a stimulus package in the trillions of dollars for businesses, workers and households in developing countries trying to tackle the coronavirus pandemic.
New Zealand declared a State of National Emergency ahead of a national lockdown tonight for at least four weeks.
Australian cancelled all elective surgery (outside urgent electives) from Wednesday night.
South Korea said it would tighten border checks for travellers from the United States by Friday.
With additional reporting by Pei Lin Wu.