Millions of Chinese returned to work on Monday after an extended Lunar New Year holiday, adding to the growing fear of the deadly new coronavirus infecting more people across the country. Authorities extended the Spring Festival break – initially set to run from January 24 to 30 – by three days, until Sunday, in an attempt to help contain the virus. But at least 24 of China’s 31 provinces, municipalities and autonomous regions, including Beijing and Shanghai, have told businesses not to reopen before February 10 at the earliest. Most organisations except those serving daily needs, such as utility companies, and medical equipment and pharmaceutical firms, remained closed. Suzhou, a manufacturing hub in eastern China, had postponed the return to work until at least February 8 before the government’s announcement last week. Cherry Yang, 30, started working from home in Shanghai this week after returning from Lanzhou in Gansu province, in the country’s northwest, on Friday. She was told by her colleagues that anyone returning to Shanghai needed to be quarantined at home for 14 days before going back to the office. “I’m not worried,” Yang, who works in the home furnishings industry, said. “If everyone follows this procedure and isolates themselves at home, we can find out which people are infected so [the virus] won’t affect too many.” But others, especially those who work in the service industry, are seriously concerned. A woman who identified herself only as Yang, 24, said she was very worried. She works at Tianjin railway station, which was reported to be linked to 12 confirmed cases of the coronavirus – eight staff and four of their family members – as of Thursday, according to local health authorities. “I’m definitely worried about my work,” she said. “The high-speed train is a sealed space, so it’s more dangerous than other places. We need to work continuously for more than 10 hours on the train, and passengers get on and off frequently.” Humour breaks out in Wuhan as bored residents wait out virus lockdown She hoped things would get better after the Lantern Festival – the last day of the Lunar New Year – this Saturday, given that most people in China would have been under quarantine for two weeks by then. The number of deaths in mainland China from the new coronavirus has overtaken the number during the severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) epidemic of 2002-03, which infected more than 8,000 people and killed 774 people globally. In China, 361 deaths and 17,205 cases attributed to the rapidly spreading illness had been recorded as of midnight on Sunday, the country’s National Health Commission announced on its website. The death toll in the central Hubei province, the epicentre of the outbreak, rose by 56 to 350. Meanwhile, more than 180 infections have been confirmed elsewhere in the world, with one fatality in the Philippines – the first outside mainland China. Coronavirus hospital set to open in Wuhan with 1,400 military medical staff To block the spread of the virus, China suspended plane, train and bus links to Hubei’s provincial capital of Wuhan, where the virus is thought to have originated, on January 23. All intracity public transport and private vehicles were later banned in the city of 11 million, which is five times the size of London. Chinese officials expanded transport restrictions to 16 surrounding cities with a combined population of over 50 million people. This included Huanggang, a city neighbouring Wuhan with the second-most confirmed cases and deaths attributed to the virus. A total of 1.28 billion passenger trips were made nationwide from January 10 to February 2, the first 24 days of the 40-day Spring Festival travel season – down 27.5 per cent from the previous year, state news agency Xinhua reported on Monday. Officials previously estimated that about 3 billion trips would be made during the 40-day travel rush. Malaysia tells ECRL workers from Wuhan not to return till further notice Despite China’s unprecedented efforts to contain the outbreak, a public health professor in Beijing said the spread of the virus could continue in the coming week as more people travel to return to work. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to speak to the media. Zhong Nanshan, the respiratory expert and head of the Chinese health commission team tackling the virus, said the outbreak may reach its peak in China in the next two weeks. He added that although the number of infections was still on the rise, there would not be a national outbreak, Xinhua reported on Sunday. “I don’t think travelling towards the end of the Spring Festival holiday period will be a big problem, as the extension of the Lunar New Year break exceeds [the coronavirus’ incubation period of] 14 days,” Zhong told Xinhua in a separate interview last week. “If you were infected by the virus during this period, you would be sick. And if you have sought treatment locally then you would not go around infecting others. “The virus is not a national outbreak, but rather an outbreak mainly in Wuhan and nearby areas. But we must pay close attention to travellers from these areas when they return [to work].” The public health professor in Beijing said that he agreed with Zhong’s prediction, considered to be the general trend around the country, but that the situation might be different elsewhere. He added that there might be a second peak in the future despite expectations of the outbreak peaking in the coming days. “Beijing has tightened restrictions in communities to battle the epidemic, but with more and more people coming back, it still needs strict control,” he said. Purchase the China AI Report 2020 brought to you by SCMP Research and enjoy a 20% discount (original price US$400). This 60-page all new intelligence report gives you first-hand insights and analysis into the latest industry developments and intelligence about China AI. Get exclusive access to our webinars for continuous learning, and interact with China AI executives in live Q&A. Offer valid until 31 March 2020.