China companies issue staff with masks, travel warnings as virus outbreak fears grow

By Engen Tham and Scott Murdoch

By Engen Tham and Scott Murdoch

SHANGHAI/HONG KONG, Jan 22 (Reuters) - Companies across China are handing out masks and warning staff to avoid the central Chinese city of Wuhan amid fears that the new flu-like coronavirus will rapidly spread with much of population embarking on travel for Lunar New Year holidays.

Firms from Foxconn to Huawei Technologies and HSBC Holdings have issued advisories, while the government has urged members of the public to be extra careful if showing symptoms of a fever or a cold and has asked travel and other companies to accommodate people who might be affected.

The death toll rose to nine on Wednesday with 440 confirmed cases, Chinese health officials said.

At Foxconn's Lunar New Year party on Wednesday, founder Terry Gou advised Taiwan-based employees not to visit mainland China during the week-long holiday period.

"Colleagues and their families who have come back from Wuhan are all in isolation at home. The infection is spreading very fast," Gou added.

Company workers in Wuhan, the centre of the outbreak, have been wearing facemasks and getting their temperature checked, the Apple supplier also said.

Huawei Technologies has asked staff to reduce travel to Wuhan and avoid contact with animals, adding that it had set up an outbreak prevention and control team in the city to carry out disinfecting activities, according to an internal note seen by Reuters.

Citic Securities and investment bank China International Capital Corp have asked employees to avoid trips to Wuhan and Hubei province, where the city is located, if they can, sources said, adding that if employees did travel there, they were required to report the trip.

Citic has also asked staff to voluntarily quarantine themselves if they do travel to Hubei.

Huawei and Citic Securities did not respond to requests for comment. A CICC representative declined to comment.

HSBC said it had advised employees that travel to Wuhan could continue but has asked them to be extra vigilant.

"We have stepped up cleaning measures at all our premises and all employees have been reminded to be more mindful of hygiene procedures and to stay at home or see a doctor if they feel unwell in any way," a spokeswoman said in an email.

Didi Chuxing, China's largest ride-hailing company, said this week it would issue masks and disinfectant to its drivers and would allow passengers and drivers in Wuhan to cancel trips for free in the days up to Jan. 31, adding that the company would bear the costs.

Travel booking platforms such as Trip.com have said users can cancel travel plans to Wuhan for free, while Shanghai's Disneyland said it will waive rescheduling fees for entry and hotel ticket buyers within six months of the purchase date given that customers might be changing their travel plans.

Hong Kong's Cathay Pacific Airways Ltd said it will allow passengers to Wuhan to change or cancel flights without charge through Feb. 15 and permit cabin crew to wear masks on flights to the mainland.

Tencent Holdings also cancelled an annual event in Shenzhen at which founder Pony Ma and other top executives hand employees Lunar New Year red envelopes containing cash. A spokesman for the tech giant declined to comment if it was due to the virus.

(Reporting by Engen Tham and Scott Murdoch; Additional reporting by Yimou Lee in Taipei, Zoey Zhang in Shanghai, Kane Wu in Hong Kong, David Kirton in Shenzhen and Yilei Sun in Beijing; Writing by Brenda Goh; Editing by Edwina Gibbs)