China lifts entry quarantine rules in decisive break with Covid-free regime

China will lift quarantine requirements for incoming travelers from January 8 as the country winds down the remnants of a Covid-free regime that has shut it off from the rest of the world for nearly three years.

The National Health Commission on Monday unveiled the move as part of a wider announcement that downgraded the country’s Covid-19 management and definitively abandoned a number of other preventive measures.

The NHC said more than 90 percent of cases of the Omicron variant were “mild or asymptomatic,” part of a shift in tone toward the coronavirus raging across the country where until recently a very small number of its 1.4 billion people had contracted it.

The government, which this month also lifted a requirement for positive cases to be quarantined in central facilities, is now grappling with a serious winter outbreak with estimated cases rising into the hundreds of millions and health services under pressure.

Models have estimated the virus could lead to close to a million deaths, although China’s public data has stopped reflecting the situation on the ground and other zero-Covid rules, such as mass testing, have largely ended.

Chinese shares led the Asia-Pacific region higher on Tuesday after the announcement, with the CSI 300 rising 1 percent and the Shanghai Composite gaining 0.9 percent. The stock exchange in Hong Kong is closed.

China pursued a strict zero-Covid policy shortly after the pandemic first emerged, locking down many of its largest cities and imposing quarantines on foreign arrivals as part of an effort to eliminate the virus within its borders.

Late this year, politics began to unravel as authorities struggled to contain outbreaks in a number of cities, including the capital, Beijing. Protesters took to the streets in November in a rare show of defiance of the central government’s approach, which was dramatically relaxed soon after.

Monday’s announcement signaled the end of the zero-Covid regime that transformed China’s relationship with the outside world and successfully limited transmission of the virus that has gripped every other advanced economy for long periods.

At one point this year, the quarantine rule required travelers to spend three weeks in a hotel room. The current policy of five days in the hotel and three days at home ends on January 8. Arrivals will still be required to have a negative Covid test result within 48 hours of departure and to wear masks on flights.

The sudden lifting of restrictions has already put enormous pressure on China’s health system, particularly in Beijing, which was one of the epicenters of the outbreak before the policy was abandoned and was considered one of the best-prepared cities.

Recent economic data has highlighted the costs of the policy. Retail sales, a measure of consumer spending, fell 5.9 percent year-on-year in November, worse than analysts expected, while the economy is set to miss the annual growth target of 5.5 percent, which was already the lowest in decades.

But analysts have also warned of the economic and corporate costs of the virus itself as it sweeps the country, with Apple among those vulnerable to further supply chain problems.

Under zero Covid, citizens in China had to test every few days at booths in major cities and scan a code on their phones to enter buildings. Such practices largely disappeared as cases multiplied rapidly, although as late as November, individuals in Shanghai were still being taken into central quarantine because they had been in close contact with positive cases in bars.

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