A passenger wears swimming goggles and a face mask as he waits inside the high-speed train station connecting Hong Kong to mainland China during a public holiday in celebration of the Lunar New Year in Hong Kong on January 28, 2020. Photo: Anthony Wallace / AFP

President Xi Jinping has admitted that China is waging a war against the “demon” coronavirus outbreak and pledged transparency in Beijing’s efforts to contain the disease.

“The epidemic is a demon, and we cannot let this demon hide,” Xi said at a meeting in Beijing with Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director-general of the World Health Organization, Chinese state media reported.

“The government has always adopted an open, transparent and responsible attitude to the timely release of information on the epidemic to domestic and foreign countries.”

Already the death toll has hit 107 with more than 4,000 people infected across China from 2019-nCoV virus after the outbreak started in Wuhan last month.

Officials at the epicenter of the health crisis have come under fire for incompetence in the wake of public anger over their handling of the situation.

Several senior figures have been subject to online ridicule for their perceived errors in responding to the emergency, including Wang Xiaodong, the governor of Hubei, the central Chinese province where the virus was first detected.
Elsewhere, the Hong Kong government has refused to completely close the border with the mainland, insisting that it would be “unwarranted,” despite rising infection rates.

Instead, Chief Executive Carrie Lam will reduce the numbers of visitors from the mainland by closing six of 14 border checkpoints from January 30 “until further notice.”

Express Rail Links will also be suspended and the number of flights from the mainland to Hong Kong will be halved while all ferry services will be shut down to “reduce the mobility of people from both sides.”

“In one go, we are ceasing the service for passengers in six control points – that’s quite a drastic measure,” Chief Executive Carrie Lam said in a press briefing on Tuesday. “It will hopefully reduce passenger flow, and achieve the outcome of drastically limiting the population mobility between the two places.

Lam said she wouldn’t agree that these are minor, non-important issues for us to tackle the current virus situation. She said about two-thirds to three-quarters of people who traveled to Hong Kong via the high-speed rail this month, for example, are Hong Kong residents coming home, not mainlanders, and a complete border shutdown would only be keeping the territory’s own residents out.

She also announced that the central government had agreed to stop issuing new individual visit visas for mainlanders. She said the number of Hubei residents remaining in Hong Kong would decline as their visas only allowed them to stay in the city for seven days.

Lam admitted that the government did not know how many Hubei people were still in the city but it would try to figure it out from hotels and travel agencies.

Prior to the announcement, all major political parties had urged for a complete shutdown of Hong Kong’s border with the mainland, which saw a nationwide spreading of the Wuhan disease.

On Tuesday morning, lawmakers of The Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong met Lam in a closed-door meeting, raising concerns about the Wuhan disease. They said the Hong Kong government should not rule out closing the border to prevent the further spread of the Wuhan virus into Hong Kong.

Michael Tien Puk-sun, a pro-establishment lawmaker and a businessman, said Hong Kong should completely close down all borders and only allow Hong Kong residents to return to the city. Tien said a complete border shutdown would definitely hurt the city’s retailers but short-term pain was inevitable in the coming months.

Hong Kong Tourist Association’s executive director Timothy Chui Ting-pong also said the tourism sector would support the idea of closing the city’s border if it was a necessary precaution.

Wong Chi-wai, vice chairman of the Hong Kong Travel Agent Owners Association, said the tourism sector had been seriously hurt by social unrest and the recent epidemic. Wong said he hoped the government would provide financial assistance to travel agencies.

Netizens slammed the government for only closing only six control points but allowing mainlanders to enter Hong Kong through major control points in Lo Wu and Lok Ma Chau and on the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge. They said mainlanders could continue to enter Hong Kong with the reasons of doing business and visiting relatives.

According to the rules of the Individual Visit Scheme, about 2.2 million Shenzhen residents can visit Hong Kong once a week with the individual visit visas. People from 49 Chinese cities, including 21 cities in Guangdong province, can visit Hong Kong once or twice within three months to one year and stay in the city for up to seven days with their visas.

It remains unclear how many mainlanders have been granted visas but have not yet come to Hong Kong.

“It’s not too late to close all the borders to stop the virus from spreading in Hong Kong,” said Ho Pak-leung, the president of the University of Hong Kong’s Centre for Infection. The ideal case was to ban all the mainlanders from entering Hong Kong while those who come to Hong Kong to work and study should be quarantined at home for 14 days, Ho said.

Joseph Sung Jao-yiu, a former doctor in the Prince of Wales Hospital and the former vice-chancellor of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said it was necessary to stop the infected from entering Hong Kong. Sung said as local hospitals were overcrowded, it would be more difficult for Hong Kong to manage a community outbreak caused by Wuhan disease this time than the severe acute respiratory syndrome virus in 2003.

Apart from partially closing the border, the Hong Kong government also resumed charging non-residents for their medical expenses if they were identified as infected in the city.

The Hospital Authority said Monday that all patients with suspected and confirmed cases of the virus would not have to pay for medical expenses in public hospitals. Local medical staff were upset by the decision saying it could attract a large number of non-local patients seeking free medical attention in Hong Kong and significantly increase their workload.

The government also said Tuesday that it had given up its plan to transform a residential building in Fai Ming Estate in Fan Ling to a quarantine center. The decision came after some angry residents blocked roads and threw petrol bombs to oppose the government’s plan on Sunday.

Lam said the government would try to find other places for a quarantine facility. She said if there were no other choice, people would have to be quarantined at home.

– Additional reporting AFP

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