Governments and airlines worldwide are suspending travel to virus-stricken China despite World Health Organization advice that such drastic measures aren’t necessary.
Australia on Saturday joined the United States in denying entry to non-citizens travelling from China. Israel also said it would refuse entry to foreign nationals coming from the country.
Vietnam halted all air travel to China, Italy banned incoming flights, the first European Union country to do so, and Qatar Airways became the first Middle East carrier to suspend flights to China.
With confirmed cases nearing 12,000 and deaths in China at 259 as of Saturday, countries are seeking to keep anyone who might have been exposed to the potentially lethal virus away. But the moves run counter to the recommendation of the WHO, which said on Thursday that it could demand scientific justification from countries that go beyond its guidance not to restrict travel.
Anxiety has escalated with more evidence that people may transmit the disease without obvious telltale signs of infection, such as coughing, sneezing and a fever. Some data has emerged suggesting that patients’ diarrhoea may pose a risk of contagion.
The WHO declared the virus a public health emergency of international concern on Thursday. The move allows the agency to recommend travel and trade measures for specific countries, regions and cities that its member states usually follow, despite their economic consequences.
In this case, WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus specifically discouraged any such measures.
“The WHO doesn’t recommend and actually opposes any restrictions for travel and trade or other measures against China,” he said, while praising China’s response to the outbreak. “If anyone is thinking about taking measures, it’s going to be wrong.”
But the steady stream of announcements coming from governments and airlines around the world suggests not many people share his view.
Vietnam suspended all China flights, effective immediately, as part of “strengthening measures” against the outbreak, its civil aviation authority said on Saturday.
The national carrier Vietnam Airlines and the budget airline Jetstar Pacific said they would stop flying to mainland China as well as Hong Kong and Taiwan.
An AFP correspondent on a flight from Taiwan to Vietnam was among 98 passengers told to disembark just as the announcement went public.
“The decision is ridiculous and unacceptable,” Vietnamese tourist Doan Thi Ngoc Diep told AFP after leaving the plane.
In Australia, Qantas Airways said it would suspend its two direct flight routes to mainland China from Feb 9 in response to travel restrictions imposed by some countries.
The national carrier’s direct flights from Sydney to Beijing and Sydney to Shanghai will be halted until March 29, it said on Saturday.
Cebu Air, the Philippines’ largest budget carrier, said it would halt all China flights from Sunday. The suspensions will last until March 29.
Delta Air Lines and American Airlines have become the first US carriers to suspend all flights to China. Delta said its suspension would last from Feb 6 through April 30, while American has halted flights from Saturday until March 27.
Earlier, the Air Line Pilots Association secured agreements with United Airlines and Delta to allow pilots to decline to fly to China if they have concerns about travelling there, according to union representatives.
European carriers including British Airways and Air France had already halted flights to China.
In other developments on Saturday:
Vietnam reported its sixth confirmed infection, a 25-year-old female hotel receptionist who had contact with two Chinese men who tested positive for the virus, according to the health ministry.
Authorities in the south-central province of Quang Ngai ordered industrial parks to place about 300 Chinese workers under a 14-day quarantine and test them for the virus, the VnExpress news website reported.
Papua New Guinea, with limited resources to deal with a major public-health threat, has gone further than nearly any other country: it has shut its air and seaports to all foreign travellers coming from Asia. It also shut its only land border with the Indonesia-controlled province of West Papua.
Indonesia will evacuate 245 of its nationals living in Wuhan and other towns in Hubei province, Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi said. They have undergone tests and been declared free of coronavirus, she said.
The Hong Kong government has found 49 people from Hubei after searching about 500 hotels, and will send them to quarantine centres or help them leave the city, according to Sophia Chan, secretary for food and health. About 30 of them have either left or plan to depart Hong Kong, she said.
China will require those returning to Hubei to get approval from local prevention bureaus first, according to the provincial government’s official WeChat account.
The Hubei provincial government has extended the Lunar New Year holiday break to Feb 13 as it seeks to curb the outbreak that first emerged in Wuhan.
South Korea confirmed another case of coronavirus, bringing the total there to 12.
The country evacuated 333 citizens from Wuhan in a second charter flight that landed in Seoul on Saturday. About seven of those on the flight showed symptoms associated with the virus and were sent to hospital, the report said.
In Japan, three more returnees from Wuhan have tested positive for the virus, the health ministry said.
They are among the Japanese nationals who returned on government-chartered flights earlier in the week and are in addition to 17 people already found to have been infected.
Russia said it would evacuate more than 2,500 of its citizens holidaying on China’s Hainan island, far from the epicentre of the virus.
In the United States, the government has put about 200 US citizens repatriated from Wuhan under legal quarantine at March Air Reserve Base in Southern California. The group includes State Department personnel, family members, children and other Americans. It’s the first time such a policy has been used in the US since the 1960s, when a quarantine order was issued to stop the spread of smallpox.
The economic impact of the health crisis is expected to be substantial, with one report predicting automobile output will fall by 32%. Plant closings that last into mid-March would cut production by 1.7 million cars, the research group IHS Markit said.
Expectations were already bleak as the year began, with the firm predicting a 10% drop in first-quarter output.
The potential hit in lost global growth could total $160 billion, according to Warwick McKibbin, a professor of economics at Australian National University. The effect of this outbreak could be three to four times larger than the blow from Sars.