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BEIJING/SHANGHAI (Reuters) - Some vital industries in Wuhan, the Chinese city at the epicentre of the coronavirus epidemic, were told they can resume work on Wednesday, a day after President Xi Jinping visited there for the first time since the outbreak began.
The city of 11 million has been in lockdown since late January but Xi's visit signalled the tide was turning in the government's favour as it fights to contain a virus that as of Tuesday had infected 80,778 people in China and killed 3,158.
The lifting of some restrictions in Wuhan, where the virus first emerged in December, comes as the vast majority of new cases are now being reported outside China. Other countries have begun imposing "social distancing" measures such as those that the Beijing authorities credit with slowing the spread in China.
Authorities elsewhere in China have lowered emergency response levels to the epidemic and relaxed travel restrictions.
Drawing confidence from Xi's visit and falling new infections, the Hubei provincial government said public transport workers in Wuhan and those engaged in making medical supplies and producing daily necessities could return to work.
Other industries that impact national or global supply chains can also return to work with permission, it said.
Curbs on transport in Wuhan remain in place, and schools in the province would remain closed until further notice.
Wuhan accounts for nearly 10% of vehicles made in China and is home to hundreds of parts suppliers. Across the country, manufacturing is slowly returning to normal.
Though the economy is still operating at about 25% below its usual levels, activity should be fully restored by the end of April, Francoise Huang, senior economist at Euler Hermes, predicted in a note to clients.
The State Council, China's cabinet, said on Wednesday it would move to boost lending support for small companies hit hard by the coronavirus. It will cut the proportion of cash banks must hold in reserves, as well as taking steps to stabilise foreign trade and investment.
Japanese automaker Nissan said it planned to partially resume production at two Chinese plants, one of them in Hubei. Its competitor Honda said that some employees had returned to work at its plant in Wuhan, and that it would gradually restart production from Wednesday.
In a gesture to further boost investor confidence, the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) said on Wednesday it will help foreign-invested firms resume work and expand sectors in which foreign investment is encouraged.
The city of Qianjiang in Hubei bucked a wider loosening trend, with authorities saying they would retain strict transport bans.
Latest figures from the National Health Commission showed 24 new coronavirus cases nationwide, and 22 more deaths as of Tuesday. All the latest deaths occurred in Wuhan.
New infections in Hubei continued to stabilise, with new cases declining for the sixth day. All 13 new cases in Hubei were recorded in Wuhan.
Wuhan "may have zero new cases by the end of March if we work harder and if nothing sudden comes up," Chinese epidemiologist Li Lanjuan said in a interview with the official People's Daily. Li is director of China's State Key Laboratory for Diagnosis and Treatment of Infectious Diseases.
The most encouraging trend to be taken from the latest infection figures was lower rate of transmission within communities in China, as 10 of Tuesday's 24 new cases involved people travelling from abroad.
But Chinese customs said downward pressure on China's foreign trade and the global economy is still increasing as the coronavirus epidemic is spreading quickly abroad.
"Stabilising trade growth would be more difficult," Customs said in a statement. "Risks of imported cases are suddenly rising, and dealing with coronavirus-related risks at China's ports would pose a major challenge."
While only 79 of the cases in China have come from abroad, the rising number of such incidences has prompted authorities to shift their focus on containing the risk of imported cases.
The capital Beijing saw six new cases on Tuesday involving individuals who travelled from Italy and the United States, while Shanghai had two imported infections, Shandong province one and Gansu province one. The southern province of Guangdong reported three cases involving travellers, one from France and two from Spain.
Elsewhere, however, Hunan province and the municipality of Chongqing lowered their emergency response level, while cities around Shandong province resumed inter-city and rural passenger transportation routes, the official Xinhua news agency reported.
So far, about three-quarters of China's municipalities, regions and provinces have lowered their emergency response level from the highest tier.
(Reporting by Ryan Woo, Lusha Zhang, Emily Chow and Andrew Galbraith; Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in Taipei and Yawen Chen, Huizhong Wu, Lun Tian Yew and Tom Daly in Beijing; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore and Angus MacSwan)