China is considering delaying the annual meeting of its top legislative body, five people familiar with the matter said, as it grapples with a virus epidemic that has forced drastic curtailment of travel and other activity to curb its spread.
The National People's Congress (NPC), made up of about 3,000 delegates, typically gathers for a session lasting at least 10 days in Beijing, beginning on March 5, to pass legislation and unveil key economic targets for the year.
A postponement would be the first since China adopted the current March schedule in 1995 for the meeting of parliament.
"The focus remains on taking steps forward towards meeting on schedule, but we are discussing a range of options as the (virus) situation doesn't look likely to be contained by March," a senior government official told Reuters, declining to be identified given the sensitivity of the matter.
"A delay is one of those options," the official said. "It should come as no surprise given that we are in a very difficult time."
China's State Council Information Office and the NPC media center did not immediately respond to faxed requests for comment.
Foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying, asked during a daily briefing on Thursday whether the NPC session could be postponed due to the virus oubtreak, said she has not heard anything on the matter.
The virus, believed to have originated in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, has killed more than 560 people and infected more than 28,000, the vast majority of them in China.
The outbreak is also inflicting a growing toll on businesses and consumers in the world's second-largest economy. Strict transport curbs have been imposed in many parts of the country and some cities are in virtual lockdown.
To minimize job losses, China's stability-obsessed leaders are likely to sign-off on more spending, tax relief and subsidies for virus-hit sectors, alongside further monetary easing to spur bank lending and lower borrowing costs for businesses, policy insiders have told Reuters.
Many officials who would ordinarily be involved in preparation for the NPC are staying at home under 14-day mandatory quarantines after returning to Beijing from their home provinces following the Lunar New Year holidays.
Central government officials in Beijing were told to resume work on February 3.
China has already postponed a high-level business event, the China Development Forum, which is usually held in late March, and the venue for the Canton Fair, a trade fair in the southern city of Guangzhou, has been suspended until further notice. The spring session of the trade fair was due to begin on April 15.
The NPC gathering is crucial this year, as it is set to ratify China's first-ever civil code, a key milestone in President Xi Jinping's legal reform effort.
The NPC is also widely expected to discuss the months-long protests in Hong Kong, and to announce the annual economic growth target along with China's defense budget.
Under China's constitution, a full plenary session of the NPC must be held every year.
Chucheng Feng, a partner at Plenum, an independent research firm in Hong Kong, put the chance of a delay at just 10% because of the meeting's political importance.
"However, as the epidemic extends into February, the gathering of China's entire political elite in a confined Great Hall of the People for over a week looks quite dangerous," he said.
China's legislative meeting happens around the same time as the meeting of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), the country's top political consultative body, which has another over 2,100 members. Together, the gatherings are known as the "Two Sessions".
The provinces of Yunnan and Sichuan have already postponed their provincial annual legislative meetings due to the outbreak.