China removes two Hubei leaders as virus crisis deepens

The two most senior health officials at the epicentre of China’s deadly virus outbreak have been sacked, state media said Tuesday, as pressure mounts over the way local authorities have handled the epidemic.

Zhang Jin, the Communist Party boss of the provincial health commission in Hubei, and its director Liu Yingzi have been removed from their positions, reported state broadcaster CCTV, after a decision by the province’s party committee Monday.

The area has found itself at the centre of a coronavirus outbreak that has killed more than 1,000 people and infected over 42,000 across China since December.

Local officials have faced mounting pressure for perceived incompetence — particularly after the death of a Chinese doctor in the provincial capital Wuhan who was punished for raising the alarm about the new virus.

Deputy director of China’s National Health Commission Wang Hesheng will take over the two roles, said CCTV.

In another sign of personnel changes at ground zero of the outbreak, senior Beijing official Chen Yixin has been sent to Wuhan to guide epidemic control work.

Chen — a former deputy party chief of Hubei — has been appointed deputy head of a central government group dispatched to the province, according to a report from the Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission on its WeChat account.

Chen is secretary general of the commission, the Communist Party’s top law enforcement body.

Analysts have said local authorities played down the extent of the outbreak in early January because they were holding political meetings at the time and wanted to project an image of stability.

Hubei remains on virtual lockdown to curb the spread of the virus.

Local Communist Party secretary Ma Guoqiang acknowledged last week that officials had worsened the spread by failing to restrict travel earlier.

Wuhan authorities also faced criticism in January for going ahead with an annual public banquet for 40,000 families just days before the city was placed on lockdown.

Other manpower changes have been taking place in the province, including the removal of a top Red Cross official in Wuhan for dereliction of duty.

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