China is preparing to ease coronavirus restrictions after a week of historic protests

  • Sources: China allows home quarantine, cuts mass testing
  • A senior official says the severity of the virus is weakening
  • The shift comes after a series of demonstrations
  • The biggest public challenge show in a decade

BEIJING (Reuters) – China is set to announce in the coming days an easing of its COVID-19 quarantine protocols and a reduction in mass testing, sources told Reuters, in a marked policy shift after anger over the world’s toughest restrictions. protests.

Cases across the country remain near record levels, but the changes come as some cities have lifted lockdowns in recent days, and a senior official said the virus’s ability to cause disease is weakening.

Health authorities announcing relaxations in their regions did not mention the protests – the biggest display of civil disobedience in China in years and ranged from candle-lit vigils in Beijing to street clashes with police in Guangzhou.

The sources familiar with the matter said the measures to be disclosed include a reduction in mass testing, regular nucleic acid tests and moves to allow positive cases and close contacts to isolate at home under certain circumstances.

This is a far cry from previous protocols that have led to public frustration as entire communities are locked down, sometimes for weeks, even after just one positive case.

Frustration boiled over last week at demonstrations of public defiance unprecedented in mainland China since President Xi Jinping came to power in 2012, and comes as the economy prepares to enter a new era of growth much slower than seen in decades.

Change rules

Less than 24 hours after violent protests in Guangzhou on Tuesday, authorities in at least seven districts of the sprawling manufacturing hub said they had lifted temporary lockdowns. One district said it would allow schools, restaurants and businesses, including movie theaters, to reopen.

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Cities such as Chongqing and Zhengzhou have also announced an easing of restrictions.

Adding to the sense of the shift in direction, Deputy Prime Minister Sun Chunlan, who is overseeing the COVID effort, said the virus’s ability to cause disease is weakening, state media reported.

“The country is facing a new situation and new tasks in the field of epidemic prevention and control, as the pathogenicity of the Omicron virus is weakening, and more people are vaccinated and experience in containing the virus is accumulated,” Sun said in remarks reported by state media.

Sun also called for “improving” examination, treatment and quarantine policies.

The mention of low pathogenicity contrasts with previous messages from the authorities about the deadly severity of the virus.

“Sun’s speech, combined with the marked easing of COVID control measures in Guangzhou yesterday, sends another strong signal that the zero COVID policy will end within the next few months,” Nomura analysts said in a research note.

“Maybe these two events signal the beginning of the end of the COVID-negligence situation.”

In the capital, Beijing, some communities are beginning to prepare for the changes.

One community in the city’s east conducted an online survey this week about the possibility of isolating positive cases at home, residents said.

“I certainly welcome our residential community’s decision to take this vote regardless of the outcome,” said Tom Simpson, managing director for China at the China UK Business Council.

He said his main concern is being forced into a quarantine facility, where “conditions can be grim to say the least.”

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Prominent nationalist commentator Hu Xijin said in a social media post on Wednesday that many coronavirus carriers in Beijing are already under home quarantine.

Re-opening next year?

Expectations have grown around the world that China, while still trying to contain infections, may look to reopen its borders sometime next year once it achieves better vaccination rates among its undecided elderly.

Health experts warn of the spread of disease and death if COVID is released before vaccination is ramped up.

Chinese stocks and markets around the world initially fell after the weekend protests in Shanghai, Beijing and other cities, but later recovered in hopes that public pressure would lead to a new approach by the authorities.

The International Monetary Fund said on Wednesday that further outbreaks of the coronavirus could affect Chinese economic activity in the near term, adding that it sees scope for a safe recalibration of policies that may allow economic growth to pick up in 2023.

China’s strict containment measures dampened domestic economic activity this year and spread to other countries through supply chain disruptions.

After downbeat data in an official survey on Wednesday, the global Caixin/S&P manufacturing PMI showed that factory activity contracted in November for the fourth consecutive month. Read more

While the change in tone regarding COVID appears to be a reaction to public discontent with the drastic measures, authorities are also seeking to question those present at the demonstrations.

The China Descent Monitor, run by the US government-funded Freedom House, estimates there were at least 27 demonstrations across China from Saturday to Monday. The Australian ASPI think tank estimated 51 protests in 24 cities.

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Additional reporting by Julie Zhou in Hong Kong, Kevin Huang and Elaine Zhang in Beijing; Written by Marius Zaharia and John Gede; Editing by Michael Berry, Robert Purcell

Our standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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