Lockdown has been imposed on five Beijing neighbourhoods after two cases of the British Covid-19 variant were detected in the Chinese capital.
The cases had ‘no genetic correlation with previously reported local cases and imported cases in Beijing’, the head of the Beijing health authority Pang Xinghuo told reporters, but are ‘considered to be variants of the new coronavirus discovered in the UK.’
The two cases of the UK variant were among seven new Covid-19 cases detected on Wednesday, with six found in the city’s southern Daxang district alone.
China has lauded its response to the pandemic, which emerged in the central city of Wuhan just over a year ago but has been broadly brought to heel, officially killing fewer than 5,000 Chinese people.
Authorities have been swift to stamp out local clusters of cases with lockdowns, mass testing regimes and travel restrictions.
Lockdown has been imposed on five Beijing neighbourhoods after two cases of the British Covid-19 variant were detected in the Chinese capital. Above, a woman walks in a community park in Beijing on January 20 after parts of the city were locked down following a Covid-19 outbreak
With the Lunar New Year Holiday looming, officials had been keen to avoid an outbreak in Beijing, the heart of political power.
But a handful of cases have been detected in the capital in recent days, with six more reported Wednesday in southern Daxing district.
Officials said that the two cases in Daxing were linked to a UK variant believed to be a more transmissible form of the virus and were first detected on Sunday.
In total, 1.6million people have been ordered to stay at home after seven cases were reported on Wednesday, including six in southern Daxing district, while China reported 103 total cases nationally.
China has been reporting over 100 cases each day for more than a week, the highest numbers since the initial outbreak in Wuhan in March 2020, putting the country on high-alert ahead of Chinese New Year which sees millions travel across the country.
All 1.6 million residents of Daxing have been ordered to not leave Beijing unless they have received special permission from the authorities and tested negative for Covid-19 in the past three days, the district said.
Meetings of 50 or more people in the district have been banned, while ‘weddings should be postponed and funerals simplified,’ the district government said.
It also ordered all kindergarten, primary and secondary students in the district to study at home.
Residents of five Daxing neighbourhoods where the cases were detected were ordered to remain indoors.
Daxing includes one of the city’s two international airports.
China has largely brought the virus under control even as the rest of the world struggles with mounting deaths and overburdened hospitals.
But a spate of small, localised outbreaks has prompted Chinese officials to order mass testing, strict lockdowns and to prepare to move thousands into quarantine facilities to stamp out a resurgence.
China reported 103 new cases on Wednesday, including the seven in Beijing.
Seven cases were reported in the city on Wednesday, including six in southern Daxing district. Pictured: Police guard a blocked-off street in a residential neighbourhood on January 20
The outbreaks, including in neighbouring Hebei province, have put China on high alert for a potential wave of cases ahead of the upcoming Lunar New Year holiday, which falls on February 12.
Traditionally, millions of people – including many migrant workers who moved from China’s outer provinces to its population hubs for work – travel home for the celebrations.
But this year, 29 provinces so far have called on employees to stay put and not travel for the holiday, South China Morning Post reports, with many cities using monetary incentives to get people to stay where they are, such as free mobile data.
Meanwhile, nearly three million people in northeastern Jilin province were placed under lockdown on Monday after a travelling salesman infected over a hundred people.
Heilongjiang, another northeastern province, has reprimanded 16 officials for ‘not doing their duty’ to prevent recent clusters of cases in the province, the provincial Communist Party newspaper Heilongjiang Daily reported Wednesday.
China has officially reported just over 86,000 cases of Covid-19 since the start of the pandemic, and 4,635 related deaths.
The majority of these occurred in Wuhan, where the virus was first detected, with Beijing reporting 947 cases and 9 deaths as of January 5 (although this figure will not be higher after the latest outbreak).
However, a number of countries and news outlets have expressed doubts of China’s official figures, suggesting that the Beijing government has under-reported the true number of Covid-19 cases and deaths.
People wearing face masks commute in a subway station during morning rush hour, following the COVID-19 outbreak, in Beijing, January 20
The latest lockdown comes after a team of WHO scientists arrived Wuhan last week, the city where the coronavirus is believed to have first spread to humans, to investigate the origins of the disease.
Anger at China grew after a young doctor, Li Wenliang, was reprimanded for trying to raise the alarm about the disease – and subsequently died of it.
The virus was first confirmed to have spread outside China in January, when a 61-year-old woman was found to be infected with it in Thailand.
After scattered outbreaks in South Korea, Iran and Japan among others, the virus barrelled into Europe and North America with full force in March and April.
But Italy, France, and Brazil have all found traces of the virus from before the WHO’s China office was officially alerted about the outbreak on December 31, 2019.
The WHO’s team on the ground in China finally arrived in Wuhan last week after months of negotiations to investigate the origins of the disease.
WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said on Monday that ‘the objective is to understand how and when this new coronavirus emerged’.
Members of the WHO team tasked with investigating the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic at Wuhan Tianhe International Airport in Wuhan, China on January 14
The team was expected to investigate the animal market linked to an early cluster of cases, but it is no longer thought that this was necessarily where the virus jumped from animals to humans.
It is widely suspected that the virus originated in bats, but scientists say that it may have passed to humans via another species, possibly pangolins.
The Trump administration has touted alternative theories, rejected by China, that the virus could have leaked out from a virology lab in Wuhan.
Last Friday, the US state department claimed that some researchers at the institute had shown possible Covid-19 symptoms weeks before the outbreak came to light.
China, for its part, has promoted the idea that the virus might not have originated within its borders at all but arrived on contaminated seafood from elsewhere.
On Monday, heads of the WHO-backed Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response criticised China for not acting fast enough after the virus was first discovered there.
The panel said it was ‘clear’ that ‘public health measures could have been applied more forcefully by local and national health authorities in China’ in January last year.
The WHO has come under heavy criticism for its handling of the pandemic, including accusations from US President Trump that it parroted Chinese propaganda, hindering early global efforts to control the spread of the virus.