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VIRUS OUTBREAK

China gradually getting back to work after outbreak measures eased

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Workers at an electronic components factory in Jiangsu Province after an extended Lunar New Year holiday following measures to curb the novel coronavirus outbreak.

Beijing

WORKERS began trickling back to offices and factories around China on Monday as the government eased some restrictions on working during a novel coronavirus epidemic that has killed more than 900 people, most of them on the mainland.

The death toll of 97 on Sunday was the largest in a single day since the outbreak was detected in December. It has been linked to a market selling wild animals in Wuhan, the capital of Hubei province.

Stocks and oil fell while safe-haven gold rose as the death toll from the outbreak surpassed that of another coronavirus, the severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars), which brought a global epidemic in 2002/2003.

A team of experts headed by the World Health Organization (WHO) flew into Beijing on Monday to help assess the latest outbreak.

China has borne the brunt of the disease with the vast majority of confirmed cases and all but two of the deaths, but WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said there had been "some concerning instances" of transmission from people who had not been to China.

"The detection of a small number of cases may indicate more widespread transmission in other countries; in short, we may only be seeing the tip of the iceberg," he said on Twitter.

The virus has spread to at least 27 countries and territories, according to a Reuters count based on official reports, infecting more than 330 people. The two deaths outside mainland China were in Hong Kong and the Philippines.

Wu Fan, vice-dean of Shanghai Fudan University Medical school, said there was hope the spread might soon reach a turning point.

The epidemic has caused huge disruptions in China with usually teeming cities becoming virtual ghost towns during the past two weeks as Communist Party rulers ordered lockdowns, cancelled flights and closed factories and schools.

The authorities told businesses to add up to 10 extra days onto Lunar New Year holidays that had been due to finish at the end of January.

Even on Monday, a large number of workplaces remained closed and many people worked from home.

Few commuters were seen during the morning rush-hour on one of Beijing's busiest subway lines. All were wearing masks.

Jin Yang, who works in a department of China's State Administration of Foreign Exchange, rode a bicycle to work instead of taking public transport. Staff were told to wear masks, avoid face-to-face meetings and the canteen was closed.

Another worker surnamed Chen said the insurance company he worked for had barred people from taking public transport.

"I usually take subways but this morning it cost me 200 yuan (S$40) one way by cab," he said.

Hubei, the province of 60 million people that is the hardest hit by the outbreak, remains in virtual lockdown, with its train stations and airports shut and its roads sealed off.

The extended closure of factories in the world's second-largest economy has raised concerns about disruptions cascading through global supply chains.

China's central bank has taken a raft of steps to support the economy, including reducing interest rates and flushing the market with liquidity. From Monday, it will provide special funds for banks to re-lend to businesses combating the virus.

Taiwan's Foxconn has received Chinese government approval to resume production at a key plant in the northern China city of Zhengzhou, a source with direct knowledge of the situation told Reuters.

But the southern city of Shenzhen rejected a company request to resume work at a plant there.

Tesla, Daimler and Ford Motor were among the carmakers that restarted production at their factories on Monday.

Samsung Electronics resumed production at its home appliance factory in China on Monday, while it continues to run its chip factory there, a spokesman said. It extended the suspension of work at a television factory to Feb 17.

Hyundai said its suppliers in China resumed production but volume was negligible. Kia Motors is suspending production at all three Korean plants due to a shortage of parts, although one of them will resume production on Tuesday.

Gaming giant Tencent Holdings said it had asked staff to continue working from home until Feb 21. REUTERS