BEIJING (Reuters) - Urged to restore economic activity by President Xi Jinping, large parts of China relaxed curbs on transport and travel on Monday as reported new cases of coronavirus outside the worst-hit province fell to the lowest in a month.
Twenty-four of China’s 31 provinces and regions - including Beijing and Shanghai - reported zero new infections on Feb. 23, the best showing since the national health authority began publishing daily nationwide figures on Jan. 20.
There were just 11 new cases in six other provincial-level jurisdictions, while in Hubei province, the center of the epidemic, the number of new cases fell to 398 from 630 a day earlier.
On Sunday, President Xi hailed the trend and urged businesses to resume work and safeguard jobs. He also told low-risk provinces to restore economic output while high-risk regions focused on controlling the epidemic.
Yunnan, Guangdong, Shanxi and Guizhou on Monday lowered their emergency response measures from the most serious level, joining the provinces of Gansu and Liaoning in relaxing restrictions on transport and travel.
The new coronavirus has infected nearly 77,000 people and killed more than 2,500 in China, and spread to numerous other countries.
Outside Hubei, factories, businesses and construction sites have already gradually restarted, though operations are still fitful.
Many front-line workers have yet to return home from specially extended Lunar New Year holidays, supply chains have not fully recovered, and raw material and component shortages still exist, a government official from Zhejiang, one of China’s biggest provinces by economic output, told a news briefing.
Some economists estimate China’s gross domestic product growth will slow in the first quarter, possibly to 3% or even lower, from 6% in the last quarter of 2019 - which was already the slowest in nearly 30 years.
“The risk is that, with the emphasis on the economy and a differentiation of regions based on the number of new infection cases, the quality of new infection data reported by local governments could be compromised again,” Nomura wrote in a research note.
Hubei remains virtually cut off.
The provincial capital Wuhan, ground zero of the outbreak, said on Monday it would allow people in good health to leave the city if their reason was urgent, but then revoked the announcement.
Beijing, which has reported two straight days of zero new infections, is not letting down its guard.
Over 100 hair salons re-opened in the Chinese capital on Monday, traditionally an auspicious day on the lunar calendar to get a haircut. But no walk-in customers were allowed and hairdressers had to wear masks while working.
Authorities said people not wearing masks in public would be warned, and that office buildings must set daily limits on people coming and going.
At the offices of Yanfeng Adient, a Shanghai maker of car seats and automobile parts, posters reminding workers to wash their hands and wear masks covered the walls.
Employees were typing away in some cubicles, using chat software to communicate, but most desks were empty, with top management encouraging white-collar staff to work from home.
Additional reporting by Judy Hua, Huizhong Wu, Yawen Chen, Roxanne Liu, Josh Horwitz and David Kirton; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore and Kevin Liffey