Chinese make travel plans as Beijing scraps COVID-0 rules

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  • China will ease border restrictions from January 8
  • Online searches for flights soar – travel platforms
  • COVID wave overloads hospitals and weighs on the economy

BEIJING, Dec 27 (Reuters) – Chinese people, cut off from the rest of the world for three years by tight COVID-19 restrictions, gathered at travel hotspots on Tuesday ahead of the reopening of borders next month, even with rising infections overwhelmed the health care system and roiled the economy.

Zero COVID measures in place since the start of 2020 – from closed borders to frequent lockdowns – last month fueled mainland China’s biggest display of public discontent since President Xi Jinping took power in 2012.

Its subsequent abrupt reversal of restrictions, which hit the $17 trillion economy, the world’s second-largest, means the virus is now spreading unchecked across the country of 1.4 billion people.

Official statistics, however, showed just one COVID death in the seven days to Monday, fueling doubts among health experts and residents alike about the government’s data. The numbers are inconsistent with the experience of much less populous countries after reopening.

Doctors say hospitals are overwhelmed with five to six times more patients than usual, most of them elderly. International health experts estimate millions of daily infections and predict at least one million deaths from COVID in China in the next year.

However, Chinese authorities are determined to dismantle the last vestiges of their COVID-0 policies.

In a big step towards freer travel – applauded by global stock markets on Tuesday – China will stop requiring arriving travelers to go into quarantine from Jan 8, the National Health Commission (NHC) said. ) on Monday night.

“It finally looks like China has turned the corner,” AmCham China President Colm Rafferty said of the imminent lifting of the quarantine rule.

There are no official restrictions on Chinese people going abroad, but the new rule will make it much easier for them to return home.

Data from travel platform Ctrip showed that within half an hour of the news, searches for popular international destinations increased by 10 times. Macau, Hong Kong, Japan, Thailand and South Korea were the most sought after, Ctrip said.

Data from Trip.com showed that outbound flight bookings were up 254% on Tuesday from the previous day.

China’s National Immigration Administration said on Tuesday it would resume processing passport applications for Chinese citizens who want to travel abroad, and approves visits by mainland residents to Hong Kong.

China will also resume implementation of a policy allowing visa-free transit of up to 144 hours for travelers. The extension or renewal of visas for foreigners will also be restored, the immigration administration added.

However, mainstream Chinese and travel agencies suggested that a return to normal would take a few months yet, given concerns about COVID and more careful spending because of the impact of the pandemic.

Separately, once the border with Hong Kong reopens next month, mainland Chinese will be able to take mRNA vaccines produced by BioNTech, said to be more effective than domestically developed options available on the mainland.

‘BIG PRESSURE’

China’s COVID classification will also be downgraded to the less strict Category B from the current top-level Category A from Jan 8, the health authority said, meaning authorities will no longer be required to quarantine patients. and close contacts and enforce blocks.

But for all the excitement of a gradual return to a pre-COVID way of life, there was mounting pressure on the healthcare system, with doctors saying many hospitals are overwhelmed while funeral homes report a spike in demand for their services. .

Nurses and doctors were asked to work as sick and retired doctors in rural communities were being rehired to help, state media reported. Some cities have struggled to secure supplies of fever medication.

“Some places are facing great pressure on hospital emergency wards and intensive care units,” Jiao Yahui, an NHC official, told reporters.

While the Chinese economy is expected to make a strong recovery towards the end of next year, it will struggle in the coming weeks and months as workers increasingly fall ill.

Many stores in Shanghai, Beijing and elsewhere have closed in recent days with employees unable to work, while some factories have already sent many of their workers on furlough for the Lunar New Year holidays in late January.

“Concern about a temporary disruption of the supply chain remains as the workforce is affected by infections,” analysts at JPMorgan said in a note, adding that tracking subway traffic in 29 cities showed that many people were restricting their movement. as the virus spread.

Data released on Tuesday showed industrial profits fell 3.6% year-on-year in January-November, down 3.0% in January-October, reflecting the impact of anti-virus restrictions in place last month. , including in major manufacturing regions.

Officials said they would step up financial support to small private businesses in the hardest-hit catering and tourism sectors.

Lifting travel restrictions is good for the economy, but strong caveats apply.

Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said his country would require a negative COVID test for travelers from mainland China. The government would also limit airlines from increasing flights to China, he said.

“International travel is likely to pick up, but it could be many months before volumes return to pre-pandemic levels,” said Dan Wang, chief economist at Hang Seng Bank China.

“COVID is still spreading across most of China, greatly disrupting normal work hours. The loss of productivity is significant.”

Reports from the Beijing and Shanghai offices and Chen Lin in Singapore; Written by Marius Zaharia; Editing by Lincoln Feast, Robert Birsel

Our Standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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