Mainland China reported just 19 new infections on Monday, the lowest number since mid-January, and the third straight day without any locally transmitted cases outside the worst-hit Hubei province.
Mr Xi’s visit to Wuhan, the capital of Hubei, lifted the Chinese stock market and could be a sign that the Communist Party “may declare victory against the virus soon”, said expert Zhang Ming, a professor at Renmin University in Beijing
“It is obvious that Xi could not have visited Wuhan earlier because the risk of him contracting the virus there was initially too high,” he said. “He is there now to reap the harvest.”
The president’s visit was marked on Tuesday by an announcement that Hubei province will start to ease the strict lockdown that has been in place in Wuhan and nearby cities since 23 January.
Officials said a new “health code” system would be implemented, allowing people in areas considered to have low or medium risk of virus infection to begin travelling.
Mr Xi arrived in Wuhan in the morning and during his trip will “visit and express regards to medical workers, military officers and soldiers, community workers, police officers, officials and volunteers who have been fighting the epidemic on the front line, as well as patients and residents during the inspection”, state media said.
The Chinese government has been heavily criticised for its initial handling of the outbreak, which first emerged as a mysterious new disease causing pneumonia-like symptoms in December last year.
Initial concerns raised by health workers were quashed, and while the outbreak was reported to the World Health Organisation (WHO) on 31 December, Mr Xi did not speak out or warn of the potential for human-to-human transmission until 20 January.
Amid criticism of the Communist Party’s leadership, Chinese premier Li Keqiang did visit Wuhan in late January. But most of the blame has been shifted to lower-ranking officials, with several removed from their posts and replaced.
Mainland China has had more than 80,700 of the 113,000 coronavirus cases around the world, 63,000 of which are in people who have already recovered.
With its proportion of the epidemic shrinking, attention in Chinese media has turned to the risks from foreigners and Chinese nationals travelling back from viral hot spots abroad such as Iran and Italy.
The focus for new cases is now Europe and the Middle East, with Italy late on Monday expanding a travel ban to the entire country, Israel ordering all visitors quarantined just weeks before Passover and Easter, and Spain closing all schools in and around its capital.
“Now that the virus has a foothold in so many countries, the threat of a pandemic has become very real,” said WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. “The great advantage we have is the decisions we all make as governments, businesses, communities, families and individuals can influence the trajectory of this epidemic.”