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Hotel error sparks shock outbreak in nation 'that beat Covid'

Taiwan, a success story of the pandemic and regularly lauded for its response to Covid-19, is facing its toughest restrictions yet after experiencing an alarming surge in virus cases.

On Sunday it reported a record 206 daily local infections, sparking panic in its capital Taipei where residents rushed to shops and stripped shelves bare of noodles and toilet paper as new restrictions loomed.

The previous day had brought 180 cases.

People wearing face masks in Taipei after cases surge in Taiwan. (AP Photo/Chiang Ying-ying)
People wear face masks to protect against the spread of coronavirus after the COVID-19 alert was raise to level 3 in Taipei. Source: AP

Before the weekend, Taiwan had impressively managed to limit its infections since the pandemic began to below 1,500 cases while it has only recorded 12 Covid-19 deaths.

And while its success in the previous 12 months highlighted Taiwan's preparedness for a pandemic, the surge in community transmission has alarmed a population that had become accustomed to life staying close to normal, with no full lockdowns of the kind seen elsewhere.

The surge in cases will undoubtedly prove to be a warning to Australia, with a similar population to Taiwan with both successfully suppressing the virus throughout the pandemic.

Supermarket shelves were stripped of noodles as residents feared greater restrictions. Source: Reuters
Supermarket shelves were stripped of noodles as Taiwan residents feared greater restrictions. Source: Reuters

On Saturday Taiwan raised its coronavirus alert level to three in Taipei, imposing two weeks of restrictions that will shut many venues and limit gatherings.

Masks are to be worn outdoors for the first time, as the government encourages work and study from home, shutting cinemas and entertainment spots, while limiting gatherings of families and friends to five indoors and 10 outdoors.

Taipei's government has ordered bars, nightclubs and similar venues to shut.

Hotel error leads to virus spread

Its spike in Covid-19 cases began after the Taoyuan Novotel hotel wrongly quarantined China Airlines flight crew at its premises last month where hotel staff became infected from positive crew. The hotel was also open to the public, Central News Agency reported.

The Taoyuan City Government Health Bureau said the hotel had not been granted permission to quarantine guests, Taiwan News reported.

Taiwan's surge in cases is its biggest since the pandemic began. Source: Worldometers
Taiwan's surge in cases is its biggest since the pandemic began. Source: Worldometers

The hotel is to be fined $253,000.

The Central Epidemic Command Centre confirmed last week new emerging clusters were genomically linked to the hotel's leak.

University of Western Australia epidemiologist Dr Zoë Hyde described the outbreak as "a major own goal".

Yet she described Taiwan as the "exemplar" of pandemic responses and believed Taiwan authorities would be able to contain the spread.

Taiwan's success during the pandemic has been a result of a clear and coherent plan outlined from the beginning and included tight border controls, a ban on foreign visitors and strict quarantine measures.

Taiwan's meticulous plan has been in place since SARS in 2003 and was implemented to a tee.

"They have professionals running the show... These are people who have trained for years for this," Tsung-Mei Cheng, a health policy research analyst at Princeton University, told CNBC last year.

President Tsai Ing-wen boasted of the nation's ability to handle an outbreak of cases in a bid to calm residents concerned over the availability of essentials.

French supermarket chain Carrefour said it was limiting purchases of items such as masks and instant noodles in its Taiwan stores, asking people to buy only what they need.

The economy ministry showed pictures of warehouses piled to the ceiling with boxes of instant noodles, saying supplies were "like a mountain" with plenty of toilet paper and canned food to go round as well.

While not ordering a total lockdown, the government is urging people to stay at home as much as possible.

With Reuters

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