BEIJING (AFP): China announced Wednesday a nationwide loosening of its hardline COVID restrictions that had hammered the world’s second biggest economy and ignited rare protests against the ruling Communist Party.
The new rules are a major relaxation of President Xi Jinping’s signature zero-COVID policy, three years into the pandemic and long after the rest of the world had largely learnt to live with the virus.
However, with vaccination rates remaining low among China’s elderly and a health system still regarded as ill-prepared for a wave of infections, Xi has not abandoned travel curbs and heavy testing completely.
Under the new guidelines announced by the National Health Commission, the frequency and scope of PCR testing – long a tedious mainstay of life in zero-COVID China – will be reduced.
Lockdowns – a major source of public anger – will also be limited to as small a scope as is feasible, and authorities are required to free areas that show no positive cases after five days.
People with non-severe COVID infections can isolate at home instead of centralised government facilities.
And people will no longer be required to show a green health code on their phone to enter public buildings and spaces, except for “nursing homes, medical institutions, kindergartens, middle and high schools”.
China will also accelerate the vaccination of the elderly, the health commission said, long seen as a major obstacle to the relaxation zero-COVID.
Until recently, Xi and the Chinese propaganda apparatus had hailed zero-COVID as a triumph of communist rule that had kept deaths low compared with democratic countries such as the United States.
But rare demonstrations against the strategy broke out across China late last month, with people railing against the restrictions.