China relaxes quarantine rules signalling a change in strict zero Covid policy

China is continues with its Zero Covid strategy.
China's infamous zero-Covid rules are set to be relaxed. Credit: AP

This morning China reported more than 10,000 Covid cases, which— for a country sticking rigidly to a zero-Covid policy— was 10,535 cases too many.

That daily tally was accompanied by news that a community in Guangzhou, the current epicentre of this latest wave, would enter a hard lockdown. That means people shut in their homes for what could be an indefinite period.

Here in Beijing in the district where I live and work, we are required to show a Covid test result taken in the last 24 hours to enter public buildings and even our homes.

With thousands of children back to online classes and several residential compounds also quarantined in the capital, it therefore came as a bit of a surprise when the State Council released details of a relaxation in China’s Covid rules.  

Covid testing in Henan province. Credit: AP

To the outside world, a reduction in quarantine from 10 days to eight might not look like much (you might even be surprised to learn there is somewhere still with quarantine at all).

But to those of us living here it is big news. It means five days in hotel quarantine instead of seven, and then three days isolating at home.

And not only was the number of days spent in centralised quarantine slashed for inbound travellers, but the Chinese authorities have also finally cancelled the ‘circuit breaker’ which had led to hundreds of flights being cancelled and routes suspended if cases had been found on board a previous flight.

Some friends who left during the summer to visit Europe had a nightmare experience with flights getting cancelled and their returns to work delayed at huge personal and emotional cost.

Hopefully those days are over, and more routes might be added, giving people more options to travel in and out of the country, and with 48 hours less to quarantine when they return.

It might also help to bring down the cost of flights which have become prohibitively expensive.

Other measures announced include a drive to promote vaccinations particularly to the elderly (long overdue), increasing stocks of anti-viral drugs, better management to prevent people getting stranded while travelling in the country, and a move to have testing only in areas where there is an outbreak.

The tiered system of low/medium/high risk areas, which can prevent you from moving around the country, and which can get you stuck, has also been streamlined to just low and high-risk areas.

Close contacts will still be sent to centralised quarantine but will have the length of isolation reduced from 10 days to eight days.

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It is a glimmer of hope we’ve been waiting for that there might be a day in the not-too-distant-future when China can join the rest of the world and return to normal(ish).

This latest announcement does not mean an end to zero-Covid. I’ll be joining the Covid queue later, as I have done every day this week, but there’s suddenly a hint, a suggestion of sense prevailing.

There have been many points this year when it appeared the authorities here were acting without any scientific or indeed legal justification, and without any apparent compassion for their fellow human beings.

Nothing will ever undo the harm done by the pursuit of the Communist Party’s Covid policy, which in recent months has led to more deaths than the virus itself— as several people have killed themselves, or died of preventable deaths due to restrictions.

The government still believes its zero-Covid policy is the best and will regularly quote the death toll from Covid in the United States – more than one million, compared to China's which is stated as less than 6,000.

In the detail of today’s 20-point plan there is a recognition of the damage lockdowns are having on businesses and education and soon after the announcement came out the Hang Seng was up by 7%, a positive welcome from the financial markets. 

Whatever has prompted this relaxation in the rules during one of China’s biggest outbreaks is hard to pinpoint.

Was it driven by economic factors? Did public discontent finally start to sink in? Did the scientists manage to persuade the top leadership the threat from Covid has diminished?

Maybe a combination of all of the above. I hope it is just the first step towards us getting back some of our freedoms - such as they were - in China.