People wear masks at Hong Kong's Wong Tai Sin temple on the first day of the Lunar New Year of the Rat. Photo: AFP

President Xi Jinping warned that mainland China was facing a “grave situation” while Hong Kong declared a state of “emergency” on Saturday as the Wuhan virus epidemic continued to spread.

Nearly 2,000 people have been infected as the death toll climbed to 56 at the weekend with new cases reported from Australia to France. The virus is also appearing to be more contagious than previously thought. Research from the Imperial College of London suggests the virus can be transmitted at a rate of 2.6 to one, meaning each infected person will infect 2.6 other people.

“Faced with the grave situation of an accelerating spread of the new coronavirus … it is necessary to strengthen the centralized and unified leadership of the Party Central Committee,” Xi said as reported by the official state-owned news agency Xinhua.

“[But] 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,” he added.

His comments were released as Hong Kong raised its response level from “serious” to “emergency” – the highest level after cases of infection in the city jumped to five.

“We haven’t seen serious and widespread infections, but we are taking this seriously and we hope to be ahead of the epidemic,” Chief Executive Carrie Lam said in a press conference on Saturday after holding meetings with officials and experts that lasted for hours.

All flights and rail service with Wuhan will remain suspended indefinitely, Lam said. However, the government was criticized for launching this measure too late as the Hubei province had already shut down the public transport systems in eight cities, including Wuhan, and prohibited people from leaving the cities on Thursday. At least 300,000 people had left Wuhan by trains on Wednesday.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam (third from left) and health officials hold a press conference about Wuhan disease on Saturday. Photo: HK Government

Ho Pak-leung, head of the University of Hong Kong’s Centre for Infection, told media that “the single most effective measure” that Hong Kong can take to suppress the spreading of the disease was to impose restrictions on people coming from the mainland areas where the coronavirus originated.

“I think it is important to implement some kind of border control at all the immigration points where Hong Kong connects with mainland China,” Ho said.

The pan-democratic camp suggested that Hong Kong should immediately shut down all border crossings with the mainland to slow the spread of the virus. Civic Party lawmaker Dennis Kwok said the government could use the Prevention and Control of Disease Ordinance to shut the border in order to stop infected people from entering Hong Kong.

However, Lam rejected calls for a temporary ban on arrivals from the mainland, saying it was inappropriate and impractical.

Gabriel Leung, head of the faculty of medicine at the University of Hong Kong and former Undersecretary for Food and Health, said he agreed with the government’s decision not to shut the border. He said all strategies should be based on science and not politics.

Leung said all five confirmed cases in Hong Kong were “imported” as they involved travelers coming from Wuhan. He said the first local infection would eventually occur as the spread of the virus was borderless. He said the government was taking a “containment” strategy against the disease and would continue to identify and isolate infected patients and those who had close contact with them.

Leung admitted that the current epidemic situation was as severe as the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS). He said his research team found out that the reproductive rate of the Wuhan virus was two on average, which means each patient could spread the virus to two people upon close contact. He said such a reproductive rate was close to that of SARS, which was about two to three.

The death rate of the Wuhan virus was 14%, meaning that one in seven to eight infected people could die, he said, adding that the death rate of SARS was 17%.

As of Saturday noon, 65 new suspected cases had been reported to the Department of Health in Hong Kong over the past day. The youngest patient was an eight-month-old baby. Of the 108 patients who were still under isolation, one was in serious condition while three were in critical condition. Others were in stable condition.

Since December 31, the Centre for Health Protection had received reports of 305 cases fulfilling the reporting criteria, including five confirmed cases and 163 cases that were ruled out.

The Education Bureau announced on Saturday that all kindergartens, primary, secondary and special schools will be closed for two weeks after the Chinese New Year holidays until February 16 to safeguard students’ health. The bureau also suggested universities and tertiary institutions should consider extending the date when classes resume.

The Hong Kong government has decided to make health declarations compulsory to all visitors from the mainland. Initially, only people arriving by plane from Wuhan were required to make the declaration. On Friday, it was extended to the express rail terminal.

The government has also ordered the cancellation of the Standard Chartered Marathon which was scheduled for February 8 and 9.

Lam said the government had contacted some mask manufacturers and sent a letter to the State Council, in an effort to increase the supply of masks to Hong Kong.

As of Saturday, more than 1,300 confirmed cases of Wuhan disease were recorded with the death toll at 41. A doctor in Hubei has become the first medical staff who died of the virus.

Read: Wuhan declares ‘state of war’ against virus

Read: China missed a golden chance to curb Wuhan virus

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