China tightens virus restrictions on new cluster ahead of Lunar New Year

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A spike in Hebei province, bordering Beijing, has sparked fresh lockdowns ahead of the Lunar New Year next month

Two Chinese cities south of Beijing further tightened virus restrictions Saturday and issued week-long stay at home orders to residents as authorities race to stamp out a resurgence in infections.

China has largely brought its domestic outbreak under control after the coronavirus first emerged in Wuhan in late 2019 but a spike in Hebei province, bordering Beijing, has sparked fresh lockdowns ahead of the Lunar New Year next month.

Hebei has reported over 130 confirmed Covid-19 cases in the past week, with more than 200 more asymptomatic infections.

Most of the cases were in Shijiazhuang city, which along with its surrounding areas is home to 11 million people. Several other infections were reported in neighbouring Xingtai city, home to 7 million.

Overnight, both cities announced new, week-long stay at home orders for their residents, officials said.

Shijiazhuang also closed its subway from Saturday morning to aid "prevention and control of the outbreak", authorities said, with taxi services also suspended.

Major highways leading into the city, around 300 kilometres (200 miles) south of Beijing, have already been closed and inter-city passenger travel halted.

Supermarkets in Shijiazhuang are now closed to walk-in customers, officials said later Saturday, with purchases limited to online orders and contactless deliveries.

More than 16 million people across the two cities had been tested for the virus since Wednesday, state media reported.

"We haven't seen a clear turning point yet in this outbreak," said Shijiazhuang official Ma Yujun. "The risk of expansion still exists."

The curbs come ahead of the Lunar New Year, when hundreds of millions criss-cross China to visit family and friends, with National Health Commission vice minister Zeng Yixin warning Saturday the festival "will further boost the risk of transmission."

Authorities are racing to roll out vaccines, with more than 9 million doses given so far, Zeng added.

Health authorities recently gave conditional approval to a vaccine candidate by Chinese pharma giant Sinopharm, with emergency use jabs already administered in the later part of 2020.

bys/rma