BEIJING (AP) — In a sharp reversal, China has announced a series of measures reversing some of its most draconian COVID-19 restrictions, including limiting hard lockdowns and ordering schools with no known infections to resume classes. regular.
The National Health Commission in a 10-point announcement on Wednesday stipulated that COVID-19 tests and a clean bill of health displayed on a smartphone app would no longer be required, in addition to vulnerable areas such as nurseries, care centers of the elderly and schools. It also limited the scale of the lockdown to individual flats and apartment buildings, rather than entire districts and neighborhoods.
People who test positive for the virus will be able to isolate at home instead of in overcrowded and unsanitary field hospitals, and schools where there have been no outbreaks must return to face-to-face teaching.
The announcement follows recent street protests in several cities over the strict “zero-COVID” policy now entering its fourth year, which has been blamed for disrupting daily life, travel and employment while dealing a severe blow to the national economy.
China has tried to maintain the hawkish policy while keeping the world’s second-largest economy running, but public frustration with the restrictions appears to have finally swayed the opinion of officials who had defended “zero COVID” as superior to approach foreign nations that have opened up in hopes of learning to live with the virus.
“Relevant departments in all localities should further improve their policy positions… and resolutely correct the simplified ‘one size fits all’ approach,” the commission said in its statement posted on its website.
Officials, often the ones at the local level under intense pressure to prevent outbreaks, must “oppose and overcome formalism and bureaucracy, and take strict and detailed measures to protect the lives, safety and health of people in to the greatest extent possible, and minimize the impact of the epidemic on economic and social development,” the statement said.
New reported COVID-19 cases in China have fallen from a daily record of more than 40,000 in recent days to just 20,764 on Wednesday, the vast majority of them asymptomatic.
Under the new measures, lockdowns cannot last more than five days unless additional cases are discovered, restrictions on the sale of cold medicines will be lifted and vaccinations for the elderly will be intensified.
Service suspension orders to companies and transport companies will be lifted and increased attention will be paid to public safety, and emergency exits will no longer be blocked due to stay-at-home orders.
Recent protests have included calls for leader Xi Jinping to step down. The protests began on November 25 after at least 10 people were killed in a fire at an apartment building in Urumqi, in the northwest. Authorities denied suggestions that the firefighters or the victims were blocked by locked doors or other anti-virus controls. But the disaster became a focus of public frustration.
In its notice, the National Health Commission made no reference to the fire, the protests or any formal end to “COVID-zero,” which has been closely identified with Xi’s authority. The policy has kept most visitors out of China and disrupted global manufacturing and trade.
Officials for days have been gradually rolling back the restrictions.
On Monday, commuters from Beijing and at least 16 other cities were allowed to board buses and subway trains without a virus test in the previous 48 hours for the first time in months.
Industrial hubs, including Guangzhou, near Hong Kong, have reopened markets and businesses and lifted most restrictions on movement while maintaining restrictions in neighborhoods with infections.
The government announced plans last week to vaccinate millions of people between the ages of 70 and 80, a condition for ending “zero-COVID” restrictions.
Health experts and economists warn that it will be mid-2023 and possibly 2024 before vaccination rates are high enough and hospitals are prepared to handle a possible wave of infections.