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China will lift quarantine requirements for international arrivals starting Jan. 8, in a major step toward reopening its borders that have shut the country off from the rest of the world for nearly three years.
Arriving passengers will only be required to show a negative Covid test result obtained within 48 hours before departure, China’s National Health Commission (NHC) said in a statement late on Monday. They are currently subject to five days of quarantine at the hotel and three days of self-isolation at home.
Restrictions on airlines on the number of international flights and passenger capacity will also be lifted, according to the announcement.
The easing of borders is part of a larger move by China to dismantle what remains of its long-standing zero-Covid policy, which was abruptly abandoned earlier this month after nationwide protests over the severe social and economic damage.
The sudden policy U-turn caught the public and the country’s fragile health system off guard, causing widespread shortages of cold and fever drugs and leaving hospitals scrambling to cope with an unprecedented surge in infections.
After lifting lockdowns, mass testing and allowing positive patients to self-quarantine at home, the government is now lifting the remaining preventive measures, including contact tracing.
China has closed its borders since March 2020 to prevent the spread of the virus, keeping itself in global isolation even as the rest of the world reopens and retreats from the pandemic.
Foreigners are largely barred from entering China, except for a limited number of business or family visits. The NHC said it will further “optimize” arrangements for foreigners to visit China for work, business, study or family reasons and “provide convenience” for their visa applications.
The lifting of travel restrictions is also a big relief for Chinese citizens studying or working abroad. Those who can’t afford the soaring airfares, long hotel quarantines or onerous testing requirements have been unable to return home for three years.
Authorities also promised to resume outbound tourism for Chinese nationals in an orderly fashion, depending on the international Covid situation and the capacity of various domestic services – although they did not offer a timetable or details on the implementation.
On Chinese social media, many celebrated the long-awaited easing of international travel. Ctrip, a travel booking site in China, said searches for popular overseas travel destinations on the platform jumped 10-fold within an hour of the new policy being announced.
Others lament the suffering, loss and missed opportunities of recent years.
“How many people who have crossed borders, from overseas students to workers making a living in Africa, have had to change their life plans? How many families were separated and forbidden to see their loved ones for the last time? How many three years do we have in our life? These three years have changed us forever,” a Chinese journalist wrote on the microblogging site Weibo.
China’s top health authority made the sweeping announcement on Monday as part of an action plan to ease Covid management.
As of 2020, China has classified Covid as a category B infectious disease but treats it as a category A disease, putting it on par with bubonic plague or cholera and empowering local authorities to impose lockdowns and other restrictions. It will now be treated as a category B disease, in the same category as HIV and bird flu.
The commission also changed the official Chinese name for Covid from “novel coronavirus pneumonia” to “novel coronavirus infection,” a change it said was “more in line with the current characteristics and danger level of this disease.”
“The less lethal Omicron variant has become the dominant strain of SARS-Cov-2, and only a very small number of cases have progressed to pneumonia,” the NHC said in a statement.
China’s top leaders have recently signaled that they will shift the focus back to growth next year and have bet on easing pandemic restrictions to boost the economy.
China’s current focus is to prepare sufficient medical resources, according to the NHC statement. Large and medium-sized cities should quickly transform their “Fangcang”, makeshift centralized Covid quarantine facilities, into designated hospitals with sufficient health workers, the NHC added.
The NHC also did not completely rule out the possibility of temporary and local restrictive measures going forward.
“As we manage outbreaks, we must pay particular attention to the real-time global assessment of the intensity of the epidemic – pressure on the health system and the general state of society – and take appropriate legal measures to limit group activities and the movement of people in a flexible way to flattening the curve,” the statement said, adding that the lockdown could be reimposed in nursing homes if the outbreak is severe.
—CNN’s Selina Wang and Laura Toi contributed to this report
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