China reports no domestic cases of coronavirus for first time since outbreak began

Helen Davidson in Hong Kong

For the first time since the coronavirus outbreak started, China has reported no new domestic transmissions of Covid-19, a major milestone in the country’s fight against the pandemic.

China’s national health commission said on Thursday there were 34 new cases, but all were recent overseas arrivals. In Hubei, the Chinese province where the outbreak began, there were no new cases of any kind during Wednesday.

The pandemic began in Hubei’s Wuhan city late last year, before spreading around the world. While the Asian nations that were first affected appeared to have come through the worst of it, there are now concerns about a second wave of infections, driven by people returning from overseas.

The good news from China came as Australia and New Zealand both announced they would close their borders to all non-residents and non-citizens. Prime Minister Scott Morrison said Australia’s borders would shut from 9pm on Friday, while his New Zealand counterpart Jacinda Ardern said the move would happen on Thursday evening.

Morrison said the decision had been reached because about 80% of Australia’s cases were the result of someone either contracting the virus overseas or being in direct contact with someone who had.

Australian treasurer Josh Frydenberg, speaking after the Reserve bank cuts its interest rate again, to 0.25%, said: “Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures.”

Hours earlier, the island state of Tasmania announced a state of emergency and effectively closed itself off from the rest of the country.

People deliver food to residents over a barrier set up to prevent people from entering or leaving a residential community in Wuhan. Photograph: AFP via Getty Images

The country’s flagship airline Qantas also said it would suspend all international flights from the end of the month and would be standing down two thirds of its 30,000-strong workforce without pay. The government also put restrictions on purchases of over-the-counter medicine, as people continued to buy multiple items despite advice and instructions not to unnecessarily hoard.

Despite continued criticism of China for its initial suppression of information and slow response to the virus, Beijing is now setting itself up as a leader in tackling it, offering assistance to other affected nations.

Related: China uses soft power to position itself as a leader in tackling coronavirus

In its daily briefing on Thursday, China’s national health commission said there were no new domestic cases in the country. Once there have been no new cases for 14 days, the lockdown on Wuhan may lift, the China Daily reported.

There were eight more deaths - all in Hubei – bringing the country’s total to 3,245, according to the commission.

It said that of the more than 81,000 cases reported in China since the outbreak began, just 7,263 remained ill.

However the commission reported a spike in infections among people who had arrived from overseas. A total of 39 people who had recently arrived were confirmed to have Covid-19 on Wednesday, bringing that cohort to 189.

On 23 January, Wuhan and three other cities – Huanggang, Ezhou and Chiba – were put under extraordinary lockdown, as authorities rushed to catch up on their virus response. An estimated 5 million people left the cities before the deadline arrived. Under the restrictions, travel in and out, for any reason, was banned. Authorities suspended public transport and banned most private cars, and eventually began house-to-house inspections and enforced quarantine.

Only supermarkets and pharmacies remained open, and schools and universities did not come back after the Lunar New Year break.

In early March some restrictions were lifted, allowing Wuhan’s public transport workers and those producing daily necessities and medical supplies to return to work. Earlier this week travel restrictions were further lifted, allowing some employees in satellite cities to be bussed into Wuhan to return to work.

As more countries have closed borders or announced mandatory quarantine periods for arrivals, thousands of people have rushed home, creating fears is of a second wave of cases in places such as mainland China, Singapore, Taiwan, and Hong Kong.

In Hong Kong, incoming flights from places such as Australia were full on Wednesday, as people sought to get back before the start of government-mandated home quarantine for all arrivals on Thursday. New arrivals must wear electronic wristbands that track their movements.

The special autonomous region has reported just 192 cases after early action and a strong community response. However it has reported record high daily totals in recent days, mostly or entirely among people who recently arrived from overseas.

“If we do not impose tougher measures at this stage, our previous efforts to prevent the disease from spreading throughout these two months could be completely wasted,” said Hong Kong’s chief executive, Carrie Lam.

In Singapore on Wednesday, 47 new infections were reported, of which 33 were imported.

As the number of cases worldwide passed 200,000, the head of the WHO described the virus as an “enemy against humanity”.

“This coronavirus is presenting us with an unprecedented threat,” Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said, calling for countries to come together as one, and for Africa - currently the least affected region – to “wake up”.

“In other countries, we have seen how the virus actually accelerates after a certain tipping point, so the best advice for Africa is to prepare for the worst, and prepare today,” he said.

The burden of cases has moved to Europe, where about 250 million people are affected by tightening lockdowns and the US, which has reported more than 7,000 cases.

The German chancellor, Angela Merkel, said the pandemic was “the biggest challenge since the second world war”. On Wednesday Italy recorded its deadliest day of the outbreak, with 475 people dying of the virus in 24 hours. The country’s death toll now sits at 2,978, with almost 36,000 reported cases. About 4,000 people have recovered there, and 2,250 are in intensive care.

In the US, California governor Gavin Newsom warned that modelling suggested about 60,000 homeless people could fall ill with Covid-19 in the next eight weeks. The state, which saw a 21% daily increase in cases with 598 reported on Wednesday, is likely to need 19,500 additional hospital beds and is looking at bringing a navy vessel to serve as a floating hospital.

At the federal level, a democrat bill was passed and approved by Donald Trump to expand Medicaid and unemployment benefits, mandate paid sick leave and childcare leave for certain employees, and order free coronavirus testing.