China has brought back masks and social distancing in a chilling echo of lockdown as they battle a mystery pneumonia outbreak four years on from Covid. Alarming footage has emerged of mask-wearing crowds inside Chinese hospitals as fears of a new pandemic sweep across the globe.

Areas in the north of the country such as Beijing and Liaoning have been hit the hardest, with reports emerging last week that hospitals are being overwhelmed with sick children.

A common bacterial infection called mycoplasma pneumonia has circulated since May but is now showing ground glass opacity in lung scans – an indicator of severe respiratory illness.


Also known as “white lung syndrome”, many parents are deeply worried and are having to wait at least a day just for emergency care.

But China continues to insist that flu and the usual winter bugs are to blame for the latest outbreak, rather than a new virus, and can cope with the spike in sickness.

Local authorities, however, are already being called upon to open more fever clinics and promote vaccine uptake among children and the elderly.

“Efforts should be made to increase the opening of relevant clinics and treatment areas, extend service hours, and increase the supply of medicines,” said ministry spokesman Mi Feng.

He also advised people to wear masks and called on local authorities to focus on preventing the spread of illnesses in crowded places such as schools and nursing homes.

But his statement comes after a Beijing children’s hospital told state media CCTV that at least 7,000 patients were being admitted daily to the institution, exceeding capacity.

It followed up the largest paediatric hospital in nearby Tianjin reportedly receiving more than 13,000 children through its doors. The concerning spread of illness comes as the nation enters its first full winter season since lifting strict COVID-19 restrictions last December.

Professor Francois Balloux, from the UCL Genetics Institute, has blamed China’s strict lockdown lowering immunity for the “exit wave” sweeping across the country.

While the US and UK also saw spikes in infections like RSV and flu after pandemic rules were lifted, China’s have been on a bigger scale.

Things escalated further last week when the World Health Organisation (WHO) were forced into a rare public intervention, formally requesting further information from Beijing on the infections.

The WHO said no unusual or novel pathogens had been detected in data provided by China, however. But both China and the WHO have been accused of a lack of transparency in their initial reports on the Covid pandemic.

It’s almost exactly four years to the date when the first Covid-19 cases were detected in the central Chinese city of Wuhan in the latter months of 2019.

And commentators have already highlighted how the wave of sickness was eerily similar to the reports that emerged just prior to Covid, which China was accused of covering up.

The UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) have already said we must keep an “open mind” about the cause of the mystery pneumonia. According to internal accounts in China, health authorities have asked the public to take children with less severe symptoms to clinics and other facilities.

At the moment, though, WHO says there is too little information to properly assess the risk of these reported cases of respiratory illness in children.