China reopens borders after three years amid surge in cases

People at the departure hall at Lok Ma Chau station in Hong Kong following the reopening of crossing border with mainland China. Credit: AP

China has scrapped quarantine requirements for travellers from today, in a major shift away from the country's now-scrapped "zero-Covid" policy after almost three years of restrictions.

China also reopened its border to Hong Kong after its land and sea border checkpoints with the mainland have been largely closed for almost three years.

The easing of restrictions come as China faces a surge in cases in major cities.

China is also bracing for a further spread with the start of nation's most important holiday of the year - the Lunar New Year - which is set to get underway in coming days.

Limited ferry service had also been restored from China's Fujian province to the Taiwanese-controlled island of Kinmen just off the Chinese coast. The border crossing with Russia at Suifenhe in the far northern province of Heilongjiang also resumed normal operations.

Shanghai announced it would again start issuing regular passports to Chinese people for foreign travel and family visits, as well as renewing and extending visas for foreigners. Meanwhile, the controversy continues over testing requirements being imposed on Chinese travellers by foreign governments, most recently Germany and Sweden.

Workers wearing face masks walk by as travellers wait at the departure hall of the Lok Ma Chau station in Hong Kong. Credit: AP

On Saturday, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock urged citizens to avoid “unnecessary” travel to China, noting the rise in coronavirus cases in the country and saying that China’s health system is “overburdened.” The German regulation also allows for spot checks on arrival and Germany, like other European nations, will test wastewater from aircrafts for possible new virus variants.

Since January 5, people travelling from China to the UK need to show a negative Covid pre-departure test taken no more than two days before departure.

The UK Health Security Agency will also launch surveillance from January 8, which will see a sample of passengers arriving in England from China tested for the virus as they arrive.

People at the departure hall at Lok Ma Chau station on Sunday. Credit: AP

Chinese health authorities publish a daily count of new cases, severe cases and deaths, but those numbers include only officially confirmed cases and use a narrow definition of Covid-19-related deaths.

Government spokespeople have said the situation is under control and reject accusations from the World Health Organisation and others that it is not being transparent about the number of cases and deaths or providing other crucial information on the nature of the current outbreak that could lead to the emergence of new variants.

A man greets his child at Beijing Capital International Airport after travelling from Hong Kong. Credit: AP

The scrapping of China's strict rules follows criticism of the country's "zero-Covid" policy.

Criticism has largely focused on heavy-handed enforcement of regulations, including open-ended travel restrictions that saw people confined to their homes for weeks, sometimes sealed inside without adequate food or medical care. There was also anger over the requirement that anyone who potentially tested positive or had been in contact with such a person be confined for observation in a field hospital, where overcrowding, poor food and hygiene were commonly cited. Tensions eventually prompted rare street protests in Beijing and other cities.

A day before restrictions were eased, China had suspended or closed the social media accounts of more than 1,000 critics of the government’s policies on the Covid outbreak.

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