China to lift Covid quarantine for incoming travelers

China announced Monday that travelers from abroad would no longer be required to enter quarantine upon arrival, in one of the country’s biggest steps toward reopening since the coronavirus pandemic began.

since January On the 8th, arriving travelers will only need to show a negative polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, test within 48 hours before departure, China’s National Health Commission said. Limitations on the number of incoming flights will also be reduced.

Travel restrictions had isolated the world’s most populous country for nearly three years. Foreigners were essentially barred from entering China in 2020, and even when they were allowed back months later, it was generally only for family or business gatherings.

Even some Chinese nationals were initially prevented from returning home, and travelers allowed to enter were forced to undergo a thorough medical examination and self-quarantine, sometimes for up to two months.

Monday’s announcement was the latest reversal in China’s “zero Covid” approach to the virus, which for years saw Beijing try to stamp out infections. But the policy, which involved harsh and prolonged lockdowns of hundreds of millions of people, crushed the economy and sparked public discontent.

In November, after a fire killed 10 people in the Xinjiang region, with many suspecting that a Covid lockdown had hampered rescue efforts, protests erupted across the country. It was one of the boldest and most widespread outbreaks of dissent in decades. Within days, the government began to ease restrictions.

The easing of travel restrictions “basically signals the final end of zero Covid,” said Yanzhong Huang, senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. While China had relaxed many of its domestic zero-Covid policies this month (for example, eliminating regular mandatory testing for urban residents and allowing home quarantine for those infected), it had stuck to its international restrictions .

However, the new measures do not amount to China opening its borders. Many details were unclear. The government has not said when it will resume issuing tourist visas: all visas that were valid at the start of the pandemic have been cancelled. Officials said they would “further optimize” the ability of foreigners to apply for visas for business, study or family reunions, without providing 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 percent from 2019, according to flight tracker VariFlight.

China will also allow its citizens to resume overseas leisure travel in an “orderly manner,” officials said. During the pandemic, the government stopped issuing or renewing passports for Chinese citizens except in limited circumstances, and in May said it would “strictly restrict non-essential outbound activities”.

The end of the international Covid quarantine was part of a wider announcement on Monday that China would downgrade its coronavirus classification. Previously, the government treated Covid-19 as a category A infectious disease, on a par with cholera or bubonic plague. Under this categorization, officials had to put in place extensive restrictions to control the spread, including lockdowns and quarantines. In the future, Covid will be treated as a category B disease, which includes AIDS and bird flu.

This change will further formalize China’s move to zero Covid at the national level, said Dr. Huang said. While the previous easing of restrictions had left local officials some leeway in deciding how quickly to reopen, Beijing was telling officials across the country that they should prioritize reviving the economy over controlling diseases, he said.

It was unclear, however, how willing international travelers would be to visit China and how much the economy would benefit. The recent easing of restrictions has led to an explosion of infections. Many older Chinese are unvaccinated or have only received two vaccinations. The number of infections and deaths is also unclear, as mass testing in the country has ended and China counts 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 in Zhejiang province, home to about 5 percent of China’s population, estimated that there were more than a million new cases of Covid a day.

Dr. Huang said that while China had pursued zero Covid for too long, he now worried that policymakers had turned too quickly in the opposite direction.

“I fear that the mitigation strategy that is supposed to focus on the elderly and the vulnerable will be relegated to 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 the news of the setback with a mixture of disbelief and elation. Some celebrated the fact that Chinese students studying abroad could more easily return to visit their families. In the minutes after the announcement, Chinese media reported, searches for international plane tickets on a travel platform soared.

Others, however, said they could not be happy with the changes, given the scale of China’s outbreak and deaths. Others noted that less than a month earlier, large swaths of cities, including Beijing, had been locked down.

Claire Fu i Amy Chang Chien provide reports

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