China announces rollback of strict anti-COVID-19 measures

BEIJING (AP) — In a sharp reversal, China has announced a series of measures rolling back some of its most draconian anti-COVID-19 restrictions, including limiting hard lockdowns and ordering schools without known infections to resume regular classes.

In a 10-point announcement on Wednesday, the National Health Commission ruled that COVID-19 tests and a clean bill of health displayed on a smartphone app will no longer be required, except for vulnerable areas such as nurseries, aged care facilities and schools . It also limited the scope of lockdown to individual apartment floors and buildings, rather than entire districts and neighborhoods.

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 classroom instruction.

The announcement follows recent street protests in several cities over the strict “zero COVID” policy, now in its fourth year, which has been blamed for upending normal life, travel and work while dealing a blow to the inflicted on the national economy.

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China has tried to maintain the tough policy while keeping the world’s second-largest economy humming along, but public frustration with the restrictions appears to be finally swaying the opinion of officials who have championed “zero-COVID” as better than the approach of foreign nations that have opened up in hopes of learning to live with the virus.

“Key departments in all areas must further improve their political positions … and resolutely correct the ‘one size fits all’ simplistic approach,” the commission said in its statement posted on its website.

Officials, often those at the local level under intense pressure to prevent outbreaks, must “oppose and overcome formalism and bureaucracy, and take strict and detailed measures to protect people’s life safety and health to the greatest extent, and the impact of the epidemic on economic and social development,” the statement said.

Newly reported cases of COVID-19 in China fell from a daily record of more than 40,000 in recent days to just 20,764 on Wednesday, the vast majority of them asymptomatic.

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Under the new measures, lockdowns cannot last longer than five days unless additional cases are discovered, restrictions on the sale of cold medicine will be lifted and vaccinations for the elderly will be stepped up.

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 have included calls for leader Xi Jinping to step down. The protests began on November 25 after at least 10 people died in a fire in an apartment building in the northwestern city of Urumqi. 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 now been identified with Xi’s authority. The policy kept most visitors out of China and disrupted manufacturing and global trade.

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Officials gradually rolled back restrictions for days.

On Monday, commuters in Beijing and at least 16 other cities were allowed to board buses and subways without a virus test in the previous 48 hours for the first time in months.

Industrial centers, including Guangzhou near Hong Kong, have reopened markets and businesses and lifted most curbs on movement, while keeping restrictions on neighborhoods with infections.

Last week, the government announced plans to vaccinate millions of people in their 70s and 80s, a condition for ending ‘zero COVID’ restrictions.

Health experts and economists warn it will be mid-2023 and possibly 2024 before vaccination rates are high enough and hospitals are prepared to handle a possible rash of infections.

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