In Day 2 of our Wuhan Diary, STEPHEN LEWIS reports on a city that is slowly getting ready to go back to work

WUHAN, Thursday March 25

THERE are signs that the sleeping giant that is the Chinese city of Wuhan may gradually be waking up from its virus-induced slumber.

Today, after 60 days in lockdown, public buses began to run again - as did the city’s underground. True, there weren’t many people using them - an awful lot of people in this city of 11 million are still in isolation at home.

But this week some state-owned companies - such as building contractors and the giant Wuhan-based state-owned car maker Dong Feng Motors - did begin a return to work, as did a few private companies specially licensed to do so by the government.

Some of the returning workers took to public transport. Others were able to drive, provided they could show that their return to work was approved. Still more - such as employees of Dong Feng Motors - went to work in special coaches laid on by their employer.

Even among those who are now allowed back to work, there is still a strong emphasis on caution.

“Every employee going back to work must wear a facemask,” said one city resident. Those travelling by public transport, meanwhile, must display the ‘health QR code’ on their mobile phone - a system that registers their health status and allows their movements to be tracked. And to reduce the risk of infection, all payments must be contactless - there is no cash changing hands, and not even any handing over of credit or debit cards, which could theoretically transmit the virus from person to person.

Bus drivers have been trained to operate the new contactless payment system - which requires bus users to stand outside the bus to pay and register their health status before getting aboard.

In another sign that things are easing, cars have now been allowed to drive into Wuhan from outside - leading to long queues of up to six hours at checkpoints where they enter the city. As things stand, however, still no cars are allowed out of the city.

Trains are also preparing to begin running. No fewer than 17 rail routes are already operating across Hubei Province, the central Chinese province of which Wuhan is the capital.

These trains have not, so far, been allowed to enter Wuhan itself. But they will begin to do so from Saturday March 28. And as things stand, the plan is to allow trains to begin to depart from Wuhan on April 8. State rail employees have been deep-cleaning waiting rooms and making sure everything is ready for a resumption of services.

Elsewhere, restrictions are beginning to relax on ordinary citizens who remain at home, too.

After several days with no new cases, there have a few more new confirmed cases of the virus across the city. Nevertheless, several local areas have been declared ‘virus free zones’.

Within these zones - gated neighbourhoods of apartment blocks - residents are beginning to be allowed out for a walk: one person from every household can go out for two hours a day, provided they stay within the zone.

“One person went down to visit the riverbank near them," the resident said. "It was a memorable day!"

People aren't only going out for a walk, either - within these zones they're even stopping to chat to neighbours and friends they haven't seen for weeks.

No-one is yet taking these beginnings of a return to normality for granted. Zones declared virus-free can easily lose that coveted status if a new case occurs. "If that happens, the virus free zone sign will be taken off and the area will need to be locked down again," the resident said. "A red line barrier was set up for one area like this where a new case was recently confirmed."

There is a sense that things beginning to get better: a feeling of hope symbolised by the cherry trees springing into blossom across the city.

Nevertheless, people still feel very cautious. "Even where people are allowed to go out, sometimes they are still reluctant to do so," another resident said. "The reason? "People know now that there are quite a large number of people who may carry the virus without any symptoms. They just don't know."

NEXT TIME: How the people of Wuhan beat off boredom during the lockdown