China to ease COVID restrictions after week of historic protests

  • China eases mass testing to allow home quarantine – sources
  • The top official says the intensity of the virus is weakening
  • The shift comes after a series of protests
  • The biggest show of public protest in a decade

BEIJING, Dec 1 (Reuters) – China is set to announce in the coming days a relaxation of its COVID-19 quarantine protocols and a reduction in mass testing, sources told Reuters, a significant shift in policy after anger over stricter restrictions spread around the world. objections.

Cases are at a record high nationwide, but changes have come in recent days as some cities lift lockdowns and the virus’s ability to cause disease is weakening, a top official said.

Health officials announcing the easing in their regions did not mention the protests — China’s biggest show of civil disobedience in years, from candlelight vigils in Beijing to street clashes with police in Guangzhou.

The measures to be rolled out include mass testing and routine nucleic acid tests and moves to allow positive cases and close contacts to self-isolate at home under certain conditions, sources familiar with the matter said.

This is a far cry from earlier protocols, which led to public frustration as entire communities were locked down for weeks, even after a single positive case.

Frustration boiled over last week in popular protests, unprecedented in mainland China since President Xi Jinping came to power in 2012.

Changing the rules

Less than 24 hours after violent demonstrations in Guangzhou on Tuesday, authorities in at least seven districts of the vast manufacturing hub said they were lifting temporary lockdowns. One district said it would allow businesses to reopen, including schools, restaurants and movie theaters.

Cities including Chongqing and Zhengzhou also announced relaxations.

Adding to the sense of change in direction, Vice Premier Sun Chunlan, who is overseeing Covid efforts, said state media reported that the virus’ ability to cause disease was weakening.

“As the pathogenicity of the Omicron virus weakens, the country faces a new situation and new tasks in preventing the epidemic, as more people are vaccinated and experience is accumulated in controlling the virus,” Sun said in comments reported in state media.

Sun also called for more “optimal” testing, treatment and isolation policies.

The hint of weak pathogenicity contradicts earlier messages from officials about the virus’ deadly nature.

“Along with the significant easing of Covid control measures in Guangzhou yesterday, Sun’s speech sends another strong signal that the zero-Covid policy will end within the next few months,” analysts at Nomura said in a research note.

“These two events may point to the beginning of the end of zero-COVID.”

Some communities in the capital, Beijing, have begun preparing for the changes.

A community in the city’s east is holding an online poll this week on the possibility of home quarantine for positive cases, residents said.

“I certainly welcome the decision of our residential community to hold this referendum regardless of the results,” said Tom Simpson, resident executive director for China at the China-Britain Business Council.

He said his main concern was being forced to move to an isolation facility where “conditions would be at least as bad”.

Prominent nationalist commentator Hu Zijin said in a social media post on Wednesday that many asymptomatic carriers of the coronavirus in Beijing are already in home isolation.

Will it reopen next year?

Expectations have grown around the world that China, as it tries to contain infections and achieve better vaccination rates among its reluctant elderly, could reopen its borders at some point next year.

Health experts warn of widespread illness and death if Covid breaks free before vaccination is ramped up.

Chinese stocks and markets around the world initially fell after weekend protests in Shanghai, Beijing and other cities, but later rebounded on hopes that public pressure would lead to a new approach by authorities.

Further COVID outbreaks could weigh on China’s economic activity next term, the International Monetary Fund said on Wednesday, which saw an opportunity for a safe overhaul of policies to allow economic growth to pick up in 2023.

China’s tight control measures have dampened domestic economic activity this year and spilled over into other countries through supply chain disruptions.

The Caixin/S&P Global manufacturing purchasing managers’ Index showed factory activity contracted in November for a fourth straight month, following weaker data in an official survey on Wednesday. read more

While the change in tone on Covid appears to be a response to public dissatisfaction with the draconian measures, authorities are also seeking to question those who participated in the protests.

China Dissent Monitor, run by the US government-funded Freedom House, estimated at least 27 protests across China from Saturday to Monday. Australia’s ASPI think tank estimated 51 protests in 24 cities.

Additional reporting by Julie Zhu in Hong Kong and Kevin Huang and Ellen Zhang in Beijing; By Marius Zaharia and John Geddy; Editing by Michael Perry, Robert Birsal

Our Standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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