China announced on Monday that travelers from overseas would no longer be required to enter quarantine upon arrival, in one of the country’s most important steps towards reopening since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.
From Jan. 8, inbound travelers will only be required to present a negative polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, test within 48 hours before departure, China’s National Health Commission said. Limits on the number of incoming flights will also be relaxed.
Travel restrictions had isolated the world’s most populous country for nearly three years. Foreigners were essentially banned from entering China in 2020, and even when they were allowed to return months later, it was usually only for business or family gatherings.
Even some Chinese nationals were unable to return home initially, and travelers allowed entry had to undergo a thorough medical examination and quarantine at their own expense – sometimes for up to two months.
Monday’s announcement was the latest reversal of China’s “zero Covid” approach to the virus, which for years has seen Beijing seek to stamp out infections. But the policy, which involved severe and prolonged lockdowns of hundreds of millions of people, crushed the economy and sparked public discontent.
Understand the situation in China
The Communist Party shelved the restrictive “zero Covid” policy, which sparked mass protests that were a rare challenge to the Communist leadership.
In November, after a fire killed 10 people in the Xinjiang region, with many suspecting a Covid lockdown had hampered rescue efforts, protests erupted across the country. It was one of the boldest and most widespread outbursts of dissent in decades. Within days, the government began easing restrictions.
The easing of travel restrictions “basically signals the final end of zero Covid,” said Yanzhong Huang, senior researcher for global health at the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations. Although China relaxed many of its zero Covid domestic policies this month – scrapping regular mandatory testing for urban residents and allowing home quarantine for those infected, for example – it has stuck to its international limitations. .
However, the new measures do not amount to China opening its borders. Many details remained unclear. The government has not said when it will start issuing tourist visas again – all those visas that were valid at the start of the pandemic have been cancelled. Officials said they would “further optimize” foreigners’ ability to apply for visas for business, study or family reunions, without giving details.
Chinese officials also did not say how many flights would be allowed into the country. In November, the number of international flights to China was 6% of what it was in 2019, according to flight tracker VariFlight.
China will also allow its citizens to resume overseas travel for leisure in an “orderly” manner, officials said. During the pandemic, the government stopped issuing or renewing Chinese nationals’ passports except in limited circumstances, and in May said it would “strictly limit non-essential outing activities”.
The end of the international Covid quarantine was part of a wider announcement on Monday that China would downgrade its classification of the coronavirus. Previously, the government treated Covid-19 as a category A infectious disease, on par with cholera or bubonic plague. Under this categorization, officials had to put in place broad restrictions to control the spread, including lockdowns and quarantines. Going forward, Covid will be treated as a category B disease, which includes AIDS and bird flu.
The change will further formalize China’s move to zero Covid at the national level, Dr Huang said. While the earlier easing of restrictions had given local officials some leeway to decide how quickly to reopen, Beijing was now signaling to officials nationwide that they should prioritize reviving the economy rather than to disease control, he said.
However, it was unclear when international travelers would be ready to visit China and how much the economy would benefit. The recent easing of restrictions has led to an explosion in infections. Many older Chinese are unvaccinated or have received only two vaccines. The number of infections and deaths is also unclear, as mass testing in the country has ended and China is counting Covid deaths differently than most of the rest of the world. But reports of overwhelmed hospitals and funeral homes are widespread.
At a press conference on Sunday, an official from Zhejiang province, home to around 5% of China’s population, estimated that there were more than a million new Covid cases a day there.
Dr Huang said if China had pursued zero Covid for too long, he now feared policymakers had swung too quickly in the opposite direction.
“I fear that the mitigation strategy which is supposed to focus on the elderly and the vulnerable is being pushed into the background,” he said.
The speed and shock of China’s Covid pivot was reflected on its social media platforms, where users on Monday greeted news of the rollback with a mixture of disbelief and elation. Some celebrated that Chinese students studying abroad could more easily return to visit their families. Within minutes of the announcement, Chinese media reported, searches for international flight tickets on a travel platform skyrocketed.
Others, however, said they could not be happy with the changes, given the scale of the outbreak and the deaths in China. Others noted that less than a month earlier, large swathes of cities, including Beijing, had been locked down.
Claire Crazy and Amy Chang Chien contributed report.
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