Public anger with restrictions appears to have swayed health officials
In a sharp reversal, China has announced a series of measures rolling back some of its most draconian anti-COVID-19 restrictions, including limiting harsh lockdowns and ordering schools without known infections to resume regular classes.
The National Health Commission in a 10-point announcement on Wednesday stipulated that COVID-19 tests and a clean bill of health displayed on a smartphone app would no longer be required, apart from vulnerable areas such as nurseries, elderly care facilities and schools.
It also limited the scale of lockdown to individual apartment floors and buildings, rather than entire districts and neighbourhoods.
People who test positive for the virus will be able to isolate at home rather than in overcrowded and unsanitary field hospitals, and schools where there have been no outbreaks must return to in-class teaching.
The announcement follows recent street protests in several cities over the strict "zero-COVID" policy now entering its fourth year, which has been blamed for upending ordinary life, travel and employment while dealing a harsh blow to the national economy.
China has sought to maintain the hardline policy while keeping the world's second-largest economy humming, but public frustration with the restrictions appears to have finally swayed the opinion of officials who had championed "zero-COVID" as superior to the approach of foreign nations that have opened up in hopes of learning to live with the virus.
Newly reported cases of COVID-19 in China have fallen from a daily record of more than 40,000 in recent days to just 20,764 on Wednesday, the vast majority of them asymptomatic.
Under the new measures, lockdowns can last no longer than five days unless additional cases are discovered, restrictions will be lifted on the sale of cold medications, and vaccinations for the elderly will be stepped up.
Attention to public safety
Orders for businesses and transport companies to suspend services will be lifted and greater attention will be paid to public safety, with fire exits no longer blocked due to lockdown orders.
The recent protests included calls for leader Xi Jinping to step down. The protests began on Nov. 25 after at least 10 people died in a fire in an apartment building in Urumqi in the northwest. Authorities denied suggestions that firefighters or victims were blocked by locked doors or other anti-virus controls. But the disaster became a focus for public frustration.
In its notice, the National Health Commission made no reference to the fire, the protests or any formal end to "zero-COVID," which has been closely identified with Xi's authority. The policy has kept most visitors out of China and disrupted manufacturing and global trade.
Officials for days have been gradually rolling back restrictions.