World News

China companies issue staff with masks, travel warnings as virus outbreak fears grow

By Engen Tham and Scott Murdoch

SHANGHAI/HONG KONG (Reuters) – Companies across China are handing out masks and warning staff to avoid the central city of Wuhan amid fears that the new flu-like coronavirus will rapidly spread with much of population embarking on travel for Lunar New Year holidays.

Firms from Foxconn <2317.TW> to Huawei Technologies [HWT.UL] and HSBC Holdings <HSBA.L> have issued advisories. The government has urged members of the public to be extra careful if showing symptoms of a fever or a cold, and has asked travel and other companies to accommodate people who might be affected.

The death toll rose to nine on Wednesday with more than 470 confirmed cases, Chinese health officials said.

At Foxconn’s Lunar New Year party on Wednesday, founder Terry Gou advised Taiwan-based employees not to visit mainland China during the week-long holiday period.

“Colleagues and their families who have come back from Wuhan are all in isolation at home. The infection is spreading very fast,” Gou added.

Company workers in Wuhan, the center of the outbreak, have been wearing facemasks and getting their temperature checked, the Apple <AAPL.O> supplier also said.

Huawei Technologies has asked staff to reduce travel to Wuhan and avoid contact with animals, adding that it had set up an outbreak prevention and control team in the city to carry out disinfecting activities, according to an internal note seen by Reuters.

Citic Securities <600030.SS> and investment bank China International Capital Corp <3908.HK> have asked employees to avoid trips to Wuhan and Hubei, the province of which it is the capital, if they can, sources said. Employees who travel there are required to report the trip.

Citic has also asked staff to voluntarily quarantine themselves if they do travel to Hubei.

Huawei and Citic Securities did not respond to requests for comment. A CICC representative declined to comment.

HSBC said it had advised employees that travel can continue to Wuhan, but has asked them to be extra vigilant.

“We have stepped up cleaning measures at all our premises and all employees have been reminded to be more mindful of hygiene procedures and to stay at home or see a doctor if they feel unwell in any way,” a spokeswoman said in an email.

Didi Chuxing, China’s largest ride-hailing company, said this week it would issue masks and disinfectant to its drivers and would let passengers and drivers in Wuhan cancel trips for free in the days up to Jan. 31. The company would bear the costs.

Anthony Renshaw, medical director for health consulting at International SOS, said more than 100 multinational companies had contacted the medical and travel security services firm so far for information and advice, mainly about travel to Wuhan but also for international planning.

“Some companies are wondering whether they should have something like this, a global health incident plan. If they do have something like this many of them are reviewing it in the context of the coronavirus incident,” he said.

“Companies are at the moment raising their crisis teams and having regular meetings about the situation and getting briefings…. A lot of multinationals are seeing this as a key risk for business resilience.”

General Motors Co <GM.N>, the No.1 U.S. automaker, said it has placed a temporary restriction on travel to Wuhan, where the company has a manufacturing base as part of a joint venture with China’s SAIC Motor <600104.SS>.

U.S. package delivery company FedEx Corp <FDX.N> said it was supplying surgical masks, hand sanitizers and alcohol wipes to team members and vendors, and disinfecting facilities at Wuhan, where it has express shipping stations.

Travel booking platforms such as <TCOM.O> have said users can cancel travel plans to Wuhan for free, while Shanghai’s Disneyland said it will waive rescheduling fees for entry and hotel ticket buyers within six months of the purchase date, given that customers might be changing their travel plans.

Hong Kong’s Cathay Pacific Airways Ltd <0293.HK> said it will allow passengers to Wuhan to change or cancel flights without charge through Feb. 15 and permit cabin crew to wear masks on flights to the mainland.

Tencent Holdings <0700.HK> also canceled an annual event in Shenzhen at which founder Pony Ma and other top executives hand employees Lunar New Year red envelopes containing cash. A spokesman for the tech giant declined to comment if it was due to the virus.

(Reporting by Engen Tham and Scott Murdoch; Additional reporting by Yimou Lee in Taipei, Zoey Zhang in Shanghai, Kane Wu in Hong Kong, David Kirton in Shenzhen, Yilei Sun in Beijing, and Ankit Ajmera and Dominic Roshan K.L. in Bengaluru; Writing by Brenda Goh; Editing by Edwina Gibbs, Peter Graff and Arun Koyyur)