China has reported its biggest single-day jump in coronavirus deaths, as countries struggled to evacuate citizens still trapped in the city where the outbreak began and Russia closed its long border with its southern neighbour.
The death toll rose to 170 on Thursday – up from 132 the previous day, a rise of 29%. The number of confirmed cases in China now stands at 7,711, up from 5,974 a day ago. The actual death rate has not risen, and is now at 2.2%.
It is understood that 162 of the deaths – or 95% – are in Hubei province where Wuhan, the city where the outbreak began, is located. Of the new deaths, 37 were in Hubei province and one in the south-western province of Sichuan.
The health chief of Huanggang city, which has reported 500 cases, second only to Wuhan, was summarily sacked by the Chinese government following public anger over her inability to answer questions about the outbreak on state television.
Tang Zhihong floundered under questioning from a central government inspection team together with a reporter. Asked how many sick people there were in one of the hospitals, she replied: “I don’t know, I’m unclear. I only know how many beds there are. Don’t ask me how many people are being treated.”
Her TV appearance generated more than half a million comments on the Weibo account of state television’s news channel, most of them in a very angry tone. A few hours after the programme aired, the city’s health department said in a terse and brief statement that Tang had been removed. It gave no other details.
The government has said it will investigate and punish officials involved in fighting the virus who “slack off” on their jobs.
The World Health Organization’s emergency committee is meeting on Thursday to decide whether to declare a global health emergency. On Wednesday it warned all governments to be “on alert”.
The WHO director general Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has praised China for its efforts to contain the virus but said that the few cases of human to human transmission outside of China, in Japan, Germany, Canada and Vietnam were cause for real concern.
In Moscow, the Russian prime minister Mikhail Mishustin issued a decree ordering the temporary closure of the country’s border with China, which extends for 2,600 miles (4,200 kms). In addition, all train traffic between the two countries, except for one train connecting Moscow and Beijing, was stopped on Thursday.
The US and Japan have started evacuating citizens, and other countries are poised to send chartered flights to Wuhan, amid reports that some evacuations had been held up by delays in obtaining permission from the Chinese authorities.
The first British flight to evacuate citizens will carry about 150 British nationals and 50 others, mainly from the EU. A Spanish chartered flight is scheduled to leave Wuhan at 5am local time on Friday for RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire. From there it is understood that the British passengers will be taken to a former NHS facility in the north-west of England.
France, South Korea and other countries are also pulling out their citizens or making plans to do so. About 250 French citizens and 100 other Europeans are scheduled to be flown out of Wuhan onboard two French planes this week.
In Italy a cruise ship’s 6,000 passengers were kept on board while tests were held on two Chinese travellers.
Businesses are beginning to feel the impact of the outbreak. Several airlines have suspended services to China, while Toyota, Ikea, Foxconn, Starbucks, Tesla and McDonald’s were among major companies to temporarily freeze production or close large numbers of outlets in China. The Chinese Football Association has postponed all domestic games.
In Huahe, a town in Hubei province, authorities were investigating the case of a 17-year-old boy with cerebral palsy who died after his father, who cared for him, was taken into quarantine for five days.
Almost 200 US citizens evacuated from Wuhan on Wednesday were undergoing three days of testing and monitoring at a southern California military base to ensure they did not show signs of the virus.
In Japan, three of the 206 people repatriated on Wednesday had tested positive for the coronavirus, bringing the number of confirmed cases in the country to 11. A second group of 210 Japanese nationals arrived in Tokyo on Thursday morning.
Officials defended the decision not to forcibly quarantine all Japanese nationals arriving from Wuhan, in contrast to Australia, South Korea, Singapore and New Zealand, which will quarantine all evacuees for at least two weeks regardless of whether they show symptoms.
Japan has classified the virus as a “designated infectious disease”, meaning it will be allowed to forcibly quarantine those who test positive, but the measure cannot legally be implemented until 7 February.
The public broadcaster NHK said the move would also allow officials at airports and ports to instruct people suspected of carrying the virus to be tested, with penalties applying to those who refuse.
Quarantine arrangements have sparked anger in South Korea, where protesters used tractors to block access to facilities set up as quarantine centres for up to 700 people returning from Wuhan to the cities of Asan and Jincheon, south of Seoul.
Agencies contributed to this report