Beijing — In a sharp reversal, China has announced a series of measures rolling back some of its most draconian anti-restrictions.
In a 10-point announcement on Wednesday, the National Health Commission stipulated that COVID-19 tests and a clean bill of health displayed on a smartphone app would no longer be required, apart from vulnerable areas such as nurseries, elderly care facilities and schools. It also limited the scale of lockdowns to individual apartment floors and buildings, rather than entire districts and neighborhoods.
People who test positive for the virus will be able to isolate at home rather than in overcrowded and unsanitary field hospitals, and schools where there have been no outbreaks must return to in-class teaching.
The announcement followsover the strict “zero-COVID” policies, now entering their fourth year, which have been blamed for upending ordinary life, travel and employment while dealing a harsh blow to the national economy.
The announcement came hours after the government released the latest data showing the deep economic impact of the policies, Agence France-Presse points out. Imports and exports plunged last month to their lowest levels since early 2020.
China has sought to maintain the hardline policies while keeping the world’s second-largest economy humming, but public frustration with the restrictions appears to have finally swayed the opinion of officials who had championed “zero-COVID” as superior to the approach of foreign nations that have opened up in hopes of learning to live with the virus.
Newly reported cases of COVID-19 in China have fallen from a daily record of more than 40,000 in recent days to just 20,764 on Wednesday, the vast majority of them asymptomatic.
Under the new measures, lockdowns can last no longer than five days unless additional cases are discovered, restrictions on the sale of cold medications will be lifted, and vaccinations for the elderly will be stepped up.
Orders for businesses and transport companies to suspend services will be lifted and greater attention will be paid to public safety, with fire exits no longer blocked due to lockdown orders.
The recent protests included calls for leader Xi Jinping to step down.
The protests began Nov. 25 after at least 10 people died in a fire in an apartment building in Urumqi in the northwest. Authorities denied suggestions that firefighters or victims were blocked by locked doors or other anti-virus controls. But the disaster became a focus of public frustration.
In its notice, the National Health Commission made no reference to the fire, the protests or any formal end to “zero-COVID,” which has been closely identified with Xi’s authority. The policies have kept most visitors out of China and disrupted manufacturing and global trade.
Officials have been gradually rolling back restrictions for days.
On Monday, commuters in Beijing and at least 16 other cities were allowed to board buses and subways without a virus test in the previous 48 hours for the first time in months.
Industrial centers including Guangzhou near Hong Kong have reopened markets and businesses and lifted most curbs on movement while keeping restrictions on neighborhoods with infections.
The government announced plans last week to vaccinate millions of people in their 70s and 80s, a condition for ending “zero-COVID” restrictions.
Health experts and economists warn it will be mid-2023 and possibly 2024 before vaccination rates are high enough and hospitals are prepared to handle a possible rash of infections.