Beijing lowers COVID testing burden with wider eye relaxation

  • No more testing required for supermarkets, offices
  • At the latest in a mix of nationwide relaxation steps
  • Curbs sparked widespread protests over the past month
  • New national rules due as soon as Wed – sources

BEIJING, Dec. 6 (Reuters) – People in China’s capital Beijing were allowed into supermarkets, offices and airports on Tuesday without showing negative COVID tests, the latest in a mix of nationwide lockdown measures following historic protests last month.

“Beijing preparing for life again,” read a headline in the state-run China Daily, adding that people are “gradually embracing” the slow return to normal.

Authorities have, to varying degrees, eased some of the world’s toughest COVID curbs and softened their tone on the threat of the virus, in what many may hope will herald a clearer shift toward normalcy three years into the pandemic’s onset could.

“This could be the first step in reopening from this pandemic,” 27-year-old Hu Dongxu told Reuters as he swiped his travel card to enter a Beijing train station, also emphasizing the need for testing to ride the U -Bahn has been omitted.

Both of the city’s airports also no longer require tests to enter the terminal, state media reported on Tuesday, although there was no evidence of changes to rules requiring passengers to present negative tests before boarding.

But further easing beckons after a string of protests last month that represented the biggest public discontent in mainland China since President Xi Jinping took power in 2012.

China could announce 10 new national easing measures as early as Wednesday, two sources with knowledge of the matter told Reuters.

The prospect of further easing of rules has sparked optimism among investors that the world’s second largest economy would regain strength and boost global growth.

But despite reassurances from authorities, commuter traffic in major cities like Beijing and Chongqing remained at a fraction of previous levels.

Some people, particularly the elderly, remain wary of catching the virus, while there are also concerns about the strain the easing could put on China’s fragile healthcare system.

“My parents are still very cautious,” said James Liu, 22, a student in Shenzhen in southern Guangdong province, where authorities “abruptly” dropped testing requirements for access to the family’s residential area.

China has reported 5,235 COVID-related deaths as of Monday, but some experts have warned the death toll could soar to over 1 million if the exit is too hasty.

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Analysts at Nomura estimate that the areas currently under lockdown account for about 19.3% of China’s total GDP, the size of India’s economy, up from 25.1% last Monday.

This marks the first drop in Nomura’s closely-watched China COVID Lockdown Index since early October nearly two months ago.

Meanwhile, officials continue to downplay the dangers posed by the virus, bringing China closer to what other countries have been saying for more than a year when they dropped restrictions and chose to live with the virus.

Tong Zhaohui, director of the Beijing Institute of Respiratory Diseases, said Monday that the latest Omicron variant of the disease has caused less severe cases than the 2009 global flu outbreak, according to Chinese state TV.

China’s treatment for the disease could be downgraded to the less stringent category B from the current top-level infectious disease category A as early as January, Reuters reported exclusively on Monday.

“The most difficult period is over,” the official Xinhua News Agency said in an op-ed published late Monday, citing the virus’ waning pathogenicity and efforts to vaccinate 90% of the population.

Analysts are now predicting that China could reopen the economy and drop border controls earlier than expected next year, with some expecting it to fully open in the spring.

However, according to a survey of 4,000 consumers in China by consulting firm Oliver Wyman, more than half of Chinese say they will put off overseas travel even if borders reopen tomorrow.

But for those who dread returning to normal, there are others who are crying out for more freedom.

“Let’s implement these guidelines quickly,” a Beijing-based lawyer surnamed Li wrote on WeChat, responding to Tuesday’s announcement of lowering testing requirements in the capital.

“Our lives and work have been affected for so long.”

Reporting by Ryan Woo, Martin Quin Pollard, Bernard Orr and the Beijing Newsroom; writing by John Geddie; Edited by Simon Cameron Moore

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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