Beijing has defended the decision to introduce control measures for some foreign visitors as it continues to battle the coronavirus outbreak, but public health experts have said the move is unlikely to buy much time as fears grow the epidemic may soon become a pandemic.
Foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said on Wednesday that the measures were necessary and had been designed to “protect the health and safety of Chinese and foreign citizens, and ensure regional and global public health security”.
“As long as the measures are scientific, professional and moderate, everybody should be able to understand,” he told a press conference in Beijing.
“China would like to conduct precautionary measures with the South Korean and Japanese sides to enhance border controls for all and reduce unnecessary travel,” he said, adding that Beijing was grateful for the support it had already received from the two countries and was keen to help them battle the deadly outbreak.
Zhao was speaking as the number of confirmed infections in South Korea rose by 284 on Wednesday, taking the total in the country to 1,261.
On Tuesday, authorities in Weihai, a city in the east China province of Shandong, said that people arriving from South Korea – including Chinese passport holders – would have to spend 14 days in hotel quarantine on arrival.
Authorities in other Chinese cities, including Qingdao in Shandong, and Shenyang and Dalian in Liaoning province have also introduced restrictions on arrivals from South Korea and Japan.
As of Wednesday morning, Japan had reported 171 confirmed cases of the coronavirus – excluding the 691 infections reported on the Diamond Princess cruise ship docked in Yokohama – and two deaths.
Benjamin Cowling, head of the epidemiology and biostatistics division at Hong Kong University, said that while the travel restrictions might help to control the spread of the virus for a time, their long-term impact would be limited.
For instance, both South Korea and Japan had imposed travel restrictions and entry controls on visitors who had recently been to Hubei but neither succeeded in preventing the spread of the virus, he said.
“In fact, the World Health Organisation does not recommend travel bans because such drastic measures cannot delay the virus transmission for a long time and are economically costly.”
Gregory Gray, an expert in infectious diseases at Duke University in the United States, warned that the escalating number of infections outside China suggested the epidemic could soon become a pandemic.
“Assuming China does not change their Covid-19 case definition and continues to share case information, time will tell,” he said.
The decision by Chinese authorities to impose control measures for visitors from Japan and South Korea came after Beijing said earlier that the barriers to entry to Chinese travellers introduced by other nations – most notably the United States – were unnecessary and would create panic.
Neither Seoul nor Tokyo has imposed a complete travel ban on visitors from China.
On Tuesday, South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha said that Seoul had exercised restraint in its immigration control efforts regarding Chinese visitors.
“[So] Banning the entry of people just because they are from Korea is something we can never accept,” she said.
“There needs to be continued communication with China to ensure it also exerts restraint and does not make excessive responses.”
The South Korean foreign ministry said it was “in consultation” with the Chinese authorities over the quarantine issue.
As of Wednesday morning, more than 761,000 South Koreans had signed an online petition organised through a presidential office website calling for a ban on Chinese visitors, local news agency Yonhap reported.
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