China lifts inbound quarantine rules in decisive break with zero-covid regime

China lifts inbound quarantine rules in decisive break with zero-covid regime

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China will lift quarantine requirements for arriving travelers from January 8 as the country dismantles the remnants of a zero-Covid regime that shut it off from the rest of the world for almost three years.

The National Health Commission on Monday revealed the move as part of a wider announcement that has downgraded the country’s Covid-19 management and finally abandoned a host of other preventive measures.

The NHC said more than 90 percent of cases of the Omicron variant were “mild or asymptomatic,” part of a shift in tone as the coronavirus rages in a country where until recently very few of its 1.4 billion people have contracted it.

The government, which this month also lifted the requirement for positive cases to be quarantined in centralized facilities, is now battling a severe winter outbreak with estimated cases spiraling into the hundreds of millions and health services under pressure.

Models have estimated the virus could lead to nearly 1 million deaths, although China’s public figures have stopped reflecting the situation on the ground and other zero-Covid policies, such as mass testing, have largely ended.

On Sunday, a day before it lifted the requirement for inbound quarantine, the NHC announced it would no longer publish daily case data, handing over to the Chinese Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC said on Tuesday that under the downgrade, it would only publish data on Covid each month.

Chinese stocks led gains in the Asia-Pacific region, with the CSI 300 of Shanghai- and Shenzhen-listed shares rising 1.15 percent, while the Shanghai Composite rose 1 percent. The Hong Kong Stock Exchange was closed.

China had pursued a strict zero-Covid policy since the outbreak of the pandemic, locking down many of its biggest cities and quarantining foreign arrivals in an effort to eliminate the virus within its borders.

Late this year, the policy began to unravel as authorities struggled to contain outbreaks in many cities, including the capital, Beijing. Protesters hit the streets in November in a rare show of defiance against the central government, which has dramatically softened its approach.

Monday’s announcement signals the end of the zero-covid system that has transformed China’s relationship with the outside world and which for long periods successfully contained transmission of the virus.

At one point this year, arriving international travelers had to spend three weeks in a hotel room. The current policy of five days in a hotel followed by three days at home will end on January 8. Arrivals will still need to have a negative Covid test result within 48 hours of departure and wear masks on flights.

China’s immigration authorities announced on Tuesday that they will resume issuing visas to mainlanders for overseas travel from January 8, another key event in the country’s reopening. Authorities will also begin issuing desired permits to enter Hong Kong for business or travel, the National Immigration Administration said, while visa extensions and new approvals for foreign passport holders will resume on the same day.

The sudden lifting of restrictions has already put enormous pressure on China’s health system, especially in Beijingwhich was one of the centers of the epidemic before the policy was abandoned, and was considered one of the best prepared cities.

Recent economic data has highlighted the cost of the policy. Retail sales, a measure of consumer spending, fell 5.9 percent year-on-year in November, worse than analysts expected, while the economy is on track to miss the 5.5 percent annual growth target already was the lowest in decades.

But analysts have also warned of the economic and corporate costs of the virus itself as it sweeps the country, with Apple among the vulnerable for additional supply chain issues.

With zero Covid, citizens in China had to get tested every few days in booths in major cities and scan a code on their phones to enter buildings. Such practices have largely disappeared as cases multiplied rapidly, although by late November people in Shanghai were still being taken into central quarantine because they had been in close contact with positive cases in bars.

Additional reporting by Cheng Leng in Hong Kong

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