- Sources: China allows home quarantine, cuts mass testing
- A senior official says the severity of the virus is weakening
- The shift comes after a series of demonstrations
- Biggest public challenge show in years
HONG KONG/BEIJING (Reuters) – China is set to announce an easing of COVID-19 quarantine protocols in the coming days and a cut in mass testing, sources told Reuters, in a marked policy shift after anger at the world. The tougher restrictions sparked widespread protests.
Cases across the country remain near record levels, but the changes come as some cities have lifted lockdowns in recent days, and a senior official said the virus’s ability to cause disease is weakening.
Health authorities announcing easing in their regions did not mention the protests – the biggest display of civil disobedience in China in years – which ranged from candlelit vigils in Beijing to street clashes with police in Guangzhou.
The sources familiar with the matter said the measures to be disclosed include limiting the use of mass testing and regular nucleic acid tests as well as moves to allow positive cases and close contacts to isolate at home under certain circumstances.
This is a far cry from previous protocols that have led to public frustration as entire communities are locked down, sometimes for weeks, even after just one positive case.
Frustration boiled over last week at demonstrations of public defiance unprecedented in mainland China since President Xi Jinping came to power in 2012. The unrest comes as the economy prepares to enter a new era of growth much slower than seen in decades.
On Thursday night, Shanghai train passengers radioed that they had received an unsolicited document on their phones stating that life in China would only improve if there was a complete lifting of the lockdown and President Xi stepped down — an apparently new tactic amid a heavy police presence in some cities. cities before the weekend.
Less than 24 hours after violent protests in Guangzhou on Tuesday, authorities in at least seven districts of the sprawling manufacturing hub said they had lifted temporary lockdowns. One district said it would allow schools, restaurants and businesses, including movie theaters, to reopen.
Cities such as Chongqing and Zhengzhou have also announced an easing of restrictions.
A sense of official momentum toward a historic shift was built Thursday as Deputy Prime Minister Sun Chunlan, who oversees the COVID effort, told a meeting of frontline experts that the Omicron variant is weakening in its ability to cause disease, allowing China to improve prevention efforts.
“After nearly three years of fighting against the epidemic, our country’s medical and healthcare system has withstood the test,” she said in remarks reported by Xinhua.
“The vaccination rate for the entire population exceeds 90% and public health awareness and quality have improved significantly,” she said.
State media reported that Sun said the day before that China was facing a “new situation” in its response to the coronavirus, and urged “improving” testing, treatment and quarantine policies.
Mentioning the weakening of the pathogenicity of COVID contradicts previous messages from a typically hawk about the severity of the virus.
“Sun’s (former) speech, combined with the marked easing of COVID control measures in Guangzhou yesterday, sends another strong signal that the zero COVID policy will end within the next few months,” Nomura analysts said in a research note.
“Maybe these two events signal the beginning of the end of the COVID-negligence situation.”
In the capital, Beijing, some communities are beginning to prepare for the changes.
One community in the city’s east conducted an online survey this week about the possibility of isolating positive cases at home, residents said.
“I certainly welcome our residential community’s decision to take this vote regardless of the outcome,” said Tom Simpson, managing director for China at the China UK Business Council.
He said his main concern is being forced into a quarantine facility, where “conditions can be grim to say the least.”
Prominent nationalist commentator Hu Xijin said in a social media post on Wednesday that many coronavirus carriers in Beijing are already under home quarantine.
Re-opening next year?
Expectations have grown around the world that China, while still trying to contain infections, may look to reopen its borders sometime next year once it achieves better vaccination rates among its undecided elderly.
Health experts warn of the spread of disease and death if COVID is released before vaccination is ramped up.
Chinese stocks and markets around the world initially fell after the weekend protests in Shanghai, Beijing and other cities, but later recovered in hopes that public pressure would lead to a new approach by the authorities.
The International Monetary Fund said on Wednesday that further outbreaks of the coronavirus could affect Chinese economic activity in the near term, adding that it sees scope for a safe recalibration of policies that may allow economic growth to pick up in 2023.
China’s strict containment measures dampened domestic economic activity this year and spread to other countries through supply chain disruptions.
After downbeat data in an official survey on Wednesday, the global Caixin/S&P manufacturing PMI showed that factory activity contracted in November for the fourth consecutive month.
While the change in tone regarding COVID appears to be a reaction to public discontent with the drastic measures, authorities are also seeking to question those present at the demonstrations.
The China Descent Monitor, which is run by the US government-funded Freedom House, estimated that at least 27 demonstrations took place across China from Saturday to Monday. The Australian ASPI think tank estimated 51 protests in 24 cities.
(This story has been reworked to fix the story’s writing credit)
Additional reporting by Julie Zhou in Hong Kong, Kevin Huang and Elaine Zhang in Beijing; Written by Marius Zaharia, John Geddy, and Greg Torode; Editing by Michael Berry, Robert Purcell, and Connor Humphreys
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