Beijing drops COVID testing burden with broader easing

  • Testing is no longer necessary for supermarkets, offices
  • Latest in a series of nationwide easing measures
  • Curbs sparked widespread protests last month
  • New national rules expected as early as Wednesday – sources

BEIJING, Dec 6 (Reuters) – Residents of China’s capital Beijing were allowed to enter supermarkets, offices and airports on Tuesday without having to present negative COVID tests, the latest in a series of steps nationwide easing after the historic protests of last month.

“Beijing is preparing for life again,” read a headline in the state-run China Daily newspaper, adding that people are “gradually embracing” the slow return to normalcy.

Authorities have to varying degrees eased some of the world’s toughest COVID restrictions and softened their tone on the threat of the virus, in what many hope can herald a more pronounced shift to normalcy three years into the pandemic.

“This could be the first step towards reopening from this pandemic,” Hu Dongxu, 27, told Reuters as he swiped his travel card to enter a train station in Beijing, which also waived the need for tests to take the train. subway.

The city’s two airports also no longer require people to pass tests to enter the terminal, state media reported Tuesday, although there were no indications of changes to the rules requiring that passengers present negative tests before boarding.

But further easing is looming after a series of protests last month marked the biggest show of public discontent in mainland China since President Xi Jinping came to power in 2012.

China could announce 10 new nationwide easing measures as early as Wednesday, two sources with knowledge of the matter told Reuters.

The prospect of further easing of rules has raised optimism among investors that the world’s second-largest economy will regain its strength and help boost global growth.

Yet despite assurances from authorities, commuter traffic in major cities like Beijing and Chongqing remained at a fraction of previous levels.

Some people remain wary of catching the virus, especially the elderly, amid also worries about the strain the loosening could put on China’s fragile healthcare system.

“My parents are always very careful,” said James Liu, 22, a student in Shenzhen, southern Guangdong province, where authorities “abruptly” dropped testing requirements to enter the family’s residential compound. .

China has reported 5,235 COVID-related deaths through Monday, but some experts have warned the toll could top one million if the exit is too rushed.

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Nomura analysts estimate that the areas currently under lockdown account for around 19.3% of China’s total GDP, equivalent to the size of India’s economy, up from 25.1% last Monday.

This is the first drop in Nomura’s closely watched China COVID lockdown index since early October, nearly two months ago.

Meanwhile, officials continue to downplay the dangers posed by the virus, bringing China closer to what other countries have been saying for more than a year as they abandon restrictions and choose to live with the virus.

Tong Zhaohui, director of the Institute of Respiratory Diseases in Beijing, said on Monday that the latest Omicron variant of the disease had caused fewer cases of severe illness than the 2009 global flu epidemic, according to Chinese state television. .

China’s handling of the disease could be downgraded as early as January, to the less stringent Category B of the current upper-tier Category A of infectious diseases, Reuters exclusively reported on Monday.

“The most difficult period has passed,” the official Xinhua news agency said in a comment published late Monday, citing the weakening of the pathogenicity of the virus and efforts to vaccinate 90% of the population.

Analysts are now predicting that China could reopen the economy and drop border controls sooner than expected next year, with some seeing it fully open in the spring.

But more than half of Chinese say they will postpone overseas trips even if borders reopen tomorrow, according to a survey of 4,000 consumers in China by consultancy Oliver Wyman.

But for all those who are reluctant to return to normality, there are others who are calling for more freedoms.

“Let’s implement these policies quickly,” a Beijing-based lawyer surnamed Li wrote on WeChat, reacting to Tuesday’s announcement of lower testing requirements in the capital.

“Our lives and our work have been affected for so long.”

Reporting by Ryan Woo, Martin Quin Pollard, Bernard Orr and the Beijing Newsroom; Written by John Geddie; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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