China has announced measures to ease its strict anti-Covid restrictions, including ending harsh lockdowns and ordering schools without known infections to resume regular classes.
The National Health Commission made a 10-point announcement on Wednesday, which stipulated Covid-19 tests and clean bill of health displayed on a smartphone app would no longer be required, apart from in vulnerable areas such as nurseries and elderly care facilities.
It also limited the scale of lockdowns 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 field hospitals, and schools where there have been no outbreaks must return to in-class teaching.
The announcement to ease its strict anti-Covid-19 restrictions following recent protests in several cities.
'I don't want a Covid test, I want freedom': ITV News Journalist Megumi Lim reported from the protests last week
The 'zero-Covid' policy, which has been in place for four years, has been criticised for upending ordinary life, travel, and employment, while dealing a harsh blow to the economy.
Despite this, China has sought to maintain the hardline policy to keep its economy humming.
However, public frustration with the restrictions appears to have swayed the opinion of officials who had previously championed the policy.
Under the new measures, lockdowns will be limited to individual apartment floors and buildings, and will only last for a maximum of five days unless additional cases are discovered.
Restrictions on the sale of cold medications will also be lifted, and vaccinations for the elderly will be increased.
Newly reported cases of Covid 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.
The recent protests, which included calls for leader Xi Jinping to step down, were sparked by a fire in an apartment building that killed at least 10 people.Authorities rubbished suggestions that firefighters or victims were blocked by locked doors or other anti-virus measures. But the disaster became a focal point for public anger.
In a statement, the National Health Commission made no reference to the fire, the subsequent protests or a formal end to 'zero-Covid'. Officials have, however, gradually rolled back 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.
After living under strict zero-Covid measures for almost three years, ITV News' Megumi Lim reacts to Wednesday's announcement
A few days ago, I woke up to news that my housing compound in Beijing was going into another lockdown, barely a week after our last lockdown had lifted. Someone who lived above my floor had tested positive. Although the news was disappointing, my husband and I were well-stocked with food and water, and were prepared to endure another stretch of being stuck at home. Except this time, things were different.
There were no workers in hazmat suits guarding the entrance of our building. Instead, a piece of tape was flimsily hung across it, easily breached by anyone who dared. We have a pet dog that needed to be walked so we did, with our masks on. Twice. By night, the lockdown had mysteriously lifted.
It turns out that the person who had tested positive was allowed to isolate at home, escaping the dreaded fate of being sent away to a quarantine facility that had long become a key component of China’s draconian zero-Covid strategy. Meanwhile, the rest of us “close contacts” were free to go about our daily lives. I was surprised and baffled.
Today, the government announced it was easing some of its strictest anti-Covid measures, including allowing people to take public transport and enter most public places without presenting a negative test result, and said it would bring an end to harsh lockdowns that had upended so many people’s daily lives. China has also softened its tone on the threat of the virus, and is pushing for more of its elderly population to get vaccinated.
This comes as cases still remain high in the country. I have lived in Beijing from the start of zero-Covid, and for the first time ever, I am hearing of friends or people I know testing positive. For the past three years, I never felt the risk of getting infected in a country where any small number of cases were immediately isolated and stamped out. Now, I am bracing myself for the possibility of catching Covid. But at least now I know I can fight the virus in the comfort of my home.
Want a quick and expert briefing on the biggest news stories? Listen to our latest podcasts to find out What You Need To Know.