People wear masks in a nearly empty Chaoyang Park in Beijing, China, February 9 2020. Picture: Picture: KEVIN FAYER/GETTY IMAGES
People wear masks in a nearly empty Chaoyang Park in Beijing, China, February 9 2020. Picture: Picture: KEVIN FAYER/GETTY IMAGES

Shanghai —  China has spent ¥31.6bn ($4.5bn) to control the outbreak of the new coronavirus, finance minister Liu Kun said on Sunday, as the government raised the death toll to 811.

About ¥71.9bn of fiscal funds have been allocated to the epidemic, including ensuring medical care and outbreak control measures are in place, Liu said on Sunday.

The central government’s fiscal authorities will continue to offer favourable policies to curb the spread of the virus, Liu said in remarks posted on the finance ministry’s website.

As the death toll officially hit 811 on Sunday authorities made plans for millions of people returning to work after an extended Lunar New Year break.

Many of China's usually teeming cities have almost become ghost towns during the past two weeks as Communist Party rulers ordered virtual lockdowns, cancelled flights, closed factories and shut schools.

Even on Monday, a large number of workplaces and schools will remain closed and many white-collar employees will work from home.

The scale of the potential hit to an economy that has been the engine of global growth in recent years has taken a toll on financial markets, as shares slumped and investors switched into safe-havens such as gold, bonds and the Japanese yen.

China's cabinet said on Sunday it would co-ordinate with transport authorities to ensure the smooth return to work of employees in key industries such as food and medicines.

The State Council's special coronavirus group also said workers should return in "batches", rather than all at once, in order to reduce infection risks.

China's ambassador to Britain described the newly identified virus as "the enemy of mankind" in an interview with BBC television on Sunday, but added it "is controllable, is preventable, is curable".

"At this moment is very difficult to predict when we are going to have an inflection point," Liu Xiaoming told the Andrew Marr Show. "We certainly hope it will come soon, but the isolation and quarantine measures have been very effective."

China's National Health Commission recorded another 89 deaths on Saturday, pushing the total well above the 774 who died from SARS in 2002/2003.

Total confirmed coronavirus cases in China stood at 37,198, commission data showed. New infections recorded the first drop since February 1, falling back below 3,000 to 2,656 cases. Of those, 2,147 cases were in Hubei province, the epicentre of the outbreak.

The virus has also spread to at least 27 countries and regions,  based on official reports, infecting more than 330 people. Two deaths have been reported outside mainland China,  both of Chinese nationals.

Mistrust and dismay

As millions of Chinese prepared to go back to work, the public dismay and mistrust of official numbers was evident on Weibo, China's equivalent of Twitter.

"What's even more frustrating is that these are only the 'official' data," said one user.

"Don't say anything else. We all know we can't purchase masks anywhere, why are we still going back to work?" said a second.

"More than 20,000 doctors and nurses around the country have been sent to Hubei, but why are the numbers still rising?" asked a third.

Beijing has blocked a plan by Apple supplier Foxconn Technology to resume production in China from Monday, the Nikkei business daily reported.

Gaming giant Tencent Holdings said on Sunday it had asked staff to continue working from home until February 21.

Hebei province, which surrounds Beijing, will keep schools shut until March 1, the People's Daily newspaper said. Several provinces have shut schools until the end of February.

Global alarm

Among the latest deaths, 81 were in Hubei. 

An American hospitalised in the provincial capital Wuhan, where the outbreak began, became the first confirmed non-Chinese victim. The Washington Post identified him as Hong Ling, a 53-year old geneticist who studied rare diseases at Berkeley.

Joseph Eisenberg, professor of epidemiology at the School of Public Health at the University of Michigan, said it was too early to say whether the epidemic was peaking.

"Even if reported cases might be peaking, we don't know what is happening with unreported cases," he said.

France issued a new travel advisory for its citizens, saying it did not recommend travelling to China unless there was an "imperative" reason. Italy asked children travelling from China to stay away from school for two weeks voluntarily.

The latest patients outside China include five British nationals staying in a mountain village in Haute-Savoie in the Alps, French health officials said, raising fears of further infections at a busy period in the ski season.

In other developments: 

• More than 70 exhibitors including US aerospace giant Lockheed Martin have pulled out of the Singapore Airshow over concerns about the outbreak, but organisers insisted on Sunday that Asia's biggest aviation event would still go ahead.

• Princess Cruises, operator of the Diamond Princess cruise ship quarantined off the coast of Japan, said a further six people had tested positive, bringing the total cases aboard to 70.

• Nine members of a Hong Kong family are infected with the new coronavirus after sharing a hotpot meal, officials confirmed late Sunday.

• Five more Britons contracted the virus in the French Alps after being exposed by someone who returned from a conference in Singapore, authorities said.

• Spain's National Centre for Microbiology confirmed on Sunday the country's second case of new coronavirus, after tests on one of four people suspected of having the virus in Mallorca came back positive. The other three were negative.

• Thirty-five more French citizens arrived home in France on Sunday  from  Wuhan, in a repatriation organised by the government.  

Bloomberg, Reuters