The spread of a deadly new virus is accelerating, Chinese President Xi Jinping warned, after holding a special government meeting on the Lunar New Year public holiday.
The coronavirus has killed at least 56 people and infected almost 2,000 since its discovery in the city of Wuhan.
The country is facing a “grave situation” Mr Xi told senior officials.
“Life is of paramount importance. When an epidemic breaks out, a command is issued. It is our responsibility to prevent and control it,” Xi said at a meeting of the leaders of the Communist Party of China, according to state-run outlet Xinhua News Agency.
The party meeting, chaired by Xi, set up a central committee to oversee work to contain the virus, according to Xinhua. Groups will be sent to Hubei province, the center of the outbreak, to work directly on the ground. Xi ordered all levels of government to “put people’s life and health as top priority,” according to Xinhua.
The US has announced that staff at the Wuhan consulate will be evacuated on a special flight on Tuesday. The State Department said that private Americans most at risk will also be able to board the flight to San Francisco.
Meanwhile, UK-based researchers have warned of a real possibility that China will not be able to contain the virus.
Travel restrictions have come in place in several affected cities. From Sunday, private vehicles will be banned from central districts of Wuhan, the source of the outbreak.
A second emergency hospital is to be built there within weeks to handle 1,300 new patients, and will be finished in half a month, state newspaper the People’s Daily said. It is the second such rapid construction project: work on another 1,000-bed hospital has already begun.
Specialist military medical teams have also been flown into Hubei province, where Wuhan is located. The urgency reflects concern both within China and elsewhere about the virus which first appeared in December.
Lunar New Year celebrations for the year of the rat, which began on Saturday, have been cancelled in many Chinese cities. Across mainland China, travellers are having their temperatures checked for signs of fever, and train stations have been shut in several cities.
In Hong Kong, the highest level of emergency has been declared and school holidays extended.
Several other nations are each dealing with a handful of cases, with patients being treated in isolation.