China Adjusts Some Pandemic Policies, While Sticking to ‘Zero Covid’

As global concerns mount about the cost of China’s zero-tolerance approach to Covid, the Chinese government on Friday fine-tuned some of its restrictions, even as it remained committed to its strict pandemic policy.

People entering China will now be required to quarantine in a hotel for five days followed by three days of isolation at home, the National Health Commission said. Previously, the rules required visitors to spend ten days in quarantine, with seven of those in a hotel or government facility.

Officials also scrapped a penalty system for airlines bringing in travelers with Covid and reduced some of their more burdensome P.C.R. testing requirements, which effectively limited the number of people entering China.

Domestically, the government narrowed its contact tracing approach, part of a broader strategy of mass testing that has led to hundreds of millions of people being thrown into quarantine under heavy guard, provoking anger and discontent.

Investors pounced on the news, with Hong Kong’s stock market soaring 7 percent and mainland financial markets rising around 2 percent.

China remains the last major holdout to strict pandemic rules. It is unclear how and when Beijing will end its “zero-Covid” policies.

China’s top leader, Xi Jinping, has repeatedly praised the tough approach for “putting people and their lives above all else.” Senior officials continue to call for “firm strategic resolve” in controlling the spread of the virus.

China reported more than 10,000 local cases on Nov. 10, its highest daily case count in more than six months.

“Some interpretations are being too optimistic,” said Bruce Pang, chief economist for Greater China at Jones Lang LaSalle. “The Covid policy will only be fine-tuned in the short term, with the focus shifting between eliminating cases and making more precise measures.”

The flurry of changes, totaling 20 new measures mostly focused on domestic rules, reflect a recognition at the highest levels that a more targeted approach is needed for controlling Covid-19. On Thursday, China’s top leadership discussed the country’s strategy amid economic uncertainty that has played out in financial markets, in the boardrooms of the world’s biggest companies and among global leaders.

Foreign executives have complained about being unable to visit local staff and inspect operations for more than two years. Many would-be shoppers are staying home out of fear of crossing paths with someone infected with Covid and being sent to quarantine under heavy guard. The social costs are climbing, too, as more people are swept up in lengthy lockdowns and tough government quarantines, their frustrations evading China’s internet censors.

Health officials said some of the adjustments to contact tracing were done to reduce the large number of people who have been caught up in the “zero-Covid” dragnet. Previously, even contacts of close contacts were identified and required to isolate.

Senior officials who met on Thursday called for a rectification of “superfluous policy steps and a one-size-fits-all approach,” in a nod to the growing social and economic cost of the country’s increasingly rigid approach to controlling new variants that are milder, albeit more contagious.

But in a sign that China’s leaders are not yet ready to abandon or deviate dramatically from their current strategies, they also stressed that “necessary epidemic control measures must not be relaxed.”

Zixu Wang contributed reporting.


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