Taiwan has reported 180 new cases of Covid-19 as it rushes to contain the worst outbreak the island has seen since the pandemic began. Authorities have raised the alert level in Taipei and the neighbouring county of New Taipei, limiting family gatherings, and ordering numerous industries to close.
Taiwan has been one of the world’s pandemic success stories, and its case numbers remain low relative to outbreaks around the world. But Saturday’s cases, which bring its total number so far to about 1,470 among a population of 24 million, mark the highest rates of community transmission since the pandemic began. Until now almost all of Taiwan’s cases were detected in new arrivals held in hotel quarantine.
Of the 180 cases, 132 were reportedly without a known source.
At a press conference on Saturday, Premier Su Tseng-chang and cabinet ministers announced the lifting of the alert level for Taipei and New Taipei from two to three, on a four-level scale, where four establishes a lockdown. Beginning 4pm Saturday they will remain in place until 28 May, authorities said.
According to guidelines published in local media, level 3 generally includes mandatory mask wearing in public, limits on outdoor gatherings to 10 and indoor gatherings to five, and the closure of all businesses except essential services, law enforcement, government services, and health services.
However in Saturday’s announcement, food and beverage outlets were only ordered to close if they could not fully implement customer ID registration and social distancing measures. Customers were urged to choose takeout over dining in. Weddings and funerals have not been cancelled but will require registration of attendees, and the limits on gatherings did not apply to schools or work.
Within hours of the announcement some supermarkets were mobbed by shoppers, despite no apparent suggestion that supermarkets would close.
Under the general guidelines, residents in neighbourhoods where community transmission has occurred - for example in Taipei’s Wanhua district which is at the centre of a major cluster - must stay within defined perimeters and comply with testing. Schools and public gatherings in the neighbourhood would also be suspended.
Residents of Wanhua, where the outbreak was originally centred around several hostess bars and tea houses linked to the sex work industry, have been reporting in droves to rapid testing clinics since Friday. Authorities have promised law enforcement has no intention of targeting sex workers or undocumented migrants.
Among Saturday’s reported cases, just 43 were in Wanhua.
The rest of Taiwan remains on alert level 2 but entertainment venues have been ordered to close and religious gatherings banned. The Taiwan-Palau travel bubble has also been suspended until 8 June, and Hong Kong has increased its quarantine requirements for anyone arriving from Taiwan.
The health minister, Chen Shih-chung, said alert level 4 would not be triggered unless there were 100 or more daily cases for seven consecutive days.
The outbreak has caught Taiwan by surprise, after almost 18 months with no major outbreaks. The island state established border controls early on and runs a strict hotel and home quarantine system. However like several nations in the Pacific which had similar success, the country has a low vaccination rate, at least partly due to struggles convincing its population to get vaccinated. While the rollout has prioritised vulnerable and high risk groups, in recent weeks health services have offered self-paid vaccines to the general public in order to use up doses before they expire. On Friday president Tsai Ing-wen announced Taiwan’s first locally developed vaccine would be available by July.
Taipei’s mayor and senior hospital authorities were expected to address the press on Saturday afternoon.