By Se Young Lee and David Stanway
BEIJING/SHANGHAI (Reuters) - The new Communist Party chief of Hubei province, the epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak in China, said on Thursday he would contain the virus but that the situation remained severe.
Shanghai mayor Ying Yong was brought in as party head in Hubei after his predecessor and the party chief of the province's capital, Wuhan, became the most high-profile officials to be dismissed following the outbreak.
The removal of Jiang Chaoliang, the leading Communist Party official of Hubei province, and Ma Guoqiang, party chief in Wuhan, followed the dismissal of two provincial health officials on Tuesday, and is part of a wider effort by Beijing to remove bureaucrats it accuses of shirking their duties.
The central government has set up a special cabinet task force under Premier Li Keqiang to handle the crisis, and the new appointments in Hubei suggest China's senior leaders are taking greater control.
Reporting Ying's appointment as the new secretary of the Hubei Provincial Committee of the Communist Party of China, the official Xinhua news agency did not explain why Jiang had been removed.
In remarks reported in the official Hubei Daily following his appointment, Ying said he would not fail the party or the people and that he bore a very heavy responsibility.
"At present, the virus situation is still extremely severe," the paper cited him as saying. "We will definitely win the battle to defend Wuhan, the battle to defend Hubei, and the battle to prevent and control the disease."
Ying worked closely with Chinese President Xi Jinping during the latter's time as party boss and governor of Zhejiang province, which neighbours Shanghai.
Ying, in the same report in the Hubei Daily, cited Xi as saying that controlling the virus was directly related to social and economic stability and China's opening up, and was the biggest priority at the moment.
Wuhan party chief Ma has been replaced by Wang Zhonglin, party boss of Jinan, the capital city of eastern Shandong province, Xinhua reported separately.
Officials in Hubei have been heavily criticised for their handling of the epidemic in a province of almost 60 million people. The outbreak began in Wuhan late last year, and has spread throughout China, killing more than 1,000 and infecting tens of thousands across the country.
Former Wuhan Party boss Ma said in a nationally televised interview that the impact of the virus on China and the world "would have been less" if containment measures had been taken sooner.
Analysts have said that the initial delay in raising the alarm in Wuhan may have arisen from local officials' fear of bringing bad news to the attention of the central government, especially as Lunar New Year festivities approached.
After the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak in 2002-2003, China said it would improve the way it shared information about epidemics, and put in place a new system allowing hospitals to report new cases in real time.
"This Wuhan epidemic shows that the situation has not really improved," said Willy Lam, an expert in Chinese politics at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
(Reporting by Lusha Zhang, Yawen Chen, Min Zhang and Huizhong Wu in Beijing, David Stanway and Samuel Shen in Shanghai; writing by Se Young Lee; Editing by Kim Coghill, Simon Cameron-Moore and Timothy Heritage)