A passenger checks her phone as an Air China passenger jet taxi past at the Beijing International Airport in Beijing. File / AP
Having mostly cut itself off from the rest of the world during the pandemic, China is now experiencing an unprecedented surge in infections after abruptly lifting restrictions that torpedoed the economy and sparked nationwide protests.
And in a sudden end to nearly three years of strict border controls, Beijing said late on Monday it would scrap mandatory quarantines for overseas travellers.
Since March 2020, all passengers arriving in China have had to undergo mandatory centralised quarantine. This decreased from three weeks to one week this summer, and to five days last month. But under new rules that will take effect on Jan.8, when COVID-19 will be downgraded to a Class B infectious disease from Class A, they will no longer need to.
“According to the national health quarantine law, infectious disease quarantine measures will no longer be taken against inbound travellers and goods,” the National Health Commission (NHC) said.
The move is likely to be greeted with joy from Chinese citizens and diaspora unable to return and see relatives for much of the pandemic. But it comes as China faces a wave of cases that studies have estimated could kill around one million people over the next few months.
Many are now grappling with shortages of medicine, while emergency medical facilities are strained by an influx of undervaccinated elderly patients.
“At present, COVID-19 prevention and control in China are facing a new situation and new tasks,” President Xi Jinping said in a directive on Monday, according to state broadcaster CCTV.
“We should launch the patriotic health campaign in a more targeted way... fortify a community line of defence for epidemic prevention and control, and effectively protect people’s lives, safety and health,” he said.
Hospitals and crematoriums across the country have been overflowing with COVID-19 patients and victims, while the NHC on Sunday announced it would stop publishing daily nationwide infection and death statistics.
That decision followed concerns that the country’s wave of infections is not being accurately reflected in official statistics.
Beijing has admitted the scale of the outbreak has become “impossible” to track following the end of mandatory mass testing.
And last week, the government narrowed the criteria by which COVID-19 fatalities were counted — a move experts said would suppress the number of deaths attributable to the virus.
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