Doctor alleges Beijing cover-up over SARS crisis

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A SENIOR Chinese physician accused his government yesterday of covering up details of the spread of the SARS virus in Beijing, raising fears that the crisis may be worse than previously thought.

The state media repeated the government’s insistence that the outbreak was under control. However, health officials from throughout China have been summoned to the capital to discuss the spread of SARS - severe acute respiratory syndrome.

The accusations of a cover-up came from Dr Jiang Yanyong, a retired chief of surgery at a Beijing military hospital. He said doctors and nurses at two other military-run institutions had told him there had been at least seven deaths in their hospitals and claimed there were 106 cases of the disease in Beijing - more than five times the figure given by authorities.

Dr Jiang, 72, who still sees patients at the capital’s No 301 hospital, said that claims by the health minister that the outbreak was under control had been dismissed as "nonsense" by health workers.

He said he had not been contacted by the authorities about his claims.

The health ministry claims there have been 19 cases in Beijing, including four deaths, one of them a Finnish man who died on Sunday.

Doctors and administrators at the hospitals cited by Dr Jiang, No 302 and No 309, refused to comment.

Elsewhere, further measures were introduced yesterday in an attempt to control the virus. Malaysia stopped issuing entry visas to most Chinese travellers, Indonesia ordered its citizens to stop spitting in public and the Catholic Church in Singapore reportedly told priests to stop hearing confessions.

A spokesman for Malaysia’s embassy in Beijing said it had been ordered to stop issuing visas to most mainland Chinese until SARS was contained. But government delegations and those on business trips can still apply if they are declared free of symptoms such as fever, coughing and breathing difficulties, he said.

Officials have also revoked visa-free travel for citizens of Hong Kong.

The Philippines issued an advisory against unnecessary travel to Hong Kong and the southern Chinese province of Guangdong, citing the SARS outbreak.

The decisions by Malaysia and the Philippines spell more trouble for an Asian-Pacific travel industry that has been battered by SARS, which was spread by air travellers after apparently originating in Guangdong.

The Australian national airline, Qantas, is to lay off 1,000 staff before the end of June, blaming a drop in traffic caused by the SARS crisis and the war in Iraq.