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China prepares to loosen COVID restrictions after a week of historic protests

China prepares to loosen COVID restrictions after a week of historic protests
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  • China will allow home quarantine, reduce mass testing: sources
  • High official says seriousness of the weakening of the virus
  • The change comes after a series of demonstrations
  • The largest public defiance demonstration in a decade

BEIJING, Dec 1 (Reuters) – China will announce in the coming days a easing of its COVID-19 quarantine protocols and a reduction in mass testing, the sources told Reuters, a marked shift in policy after anger over the world’s toughest restrictions fueled widespread protests.

Cases across the country remain near record levels, but the changes come as some cities lifted their lockdowns in recent days, and a top official said the virus’s ability to cause disease was weakening.

Health authorities announcing the relaxation in their areas made no mention of the protests, the largest display of civil disobedience in China in years, which has ranged from candlelight vigils in Beijing to street clashes with police in Guangzhou.

The measures to be unveiled include a reduction in mass testing and regular nucleic acid testing and moves to allow positive cases and close contacts to self-isolate at home under certain conditions, the sources familiar with the matter said.

That is a far cry from previous protocols that drew public frustrations, as entire communities were locked down, sometimes for weeks, even after a single positive case.

The frustration boiled over last week in public defiance demonstrations unprecedented in mainland China since President Xi Jinping took power in 2012, and comes as the economy is poised to enter a new era of much slower-than-expected growth. seen in decades.

CHANGING RULES

Less than 24 hours after violent protests in Guangzhou on Tuesday, authorities in at least seven districts of the sprawling manufacturing hub said they would lift temporary lockdowns. One district said it would allow schools, restaurants and businesses, including movie theaters, to reopen.

Cities like Chongqing and Zhengzhou also announced easing.

Adding to the sense of a change in direction, Vice Premier Sun Chunlan, who oversees COVID efforts, said the virus’s ability to cause disease was weakening, state media reported.

“The country faces a new situation and new tasks in epidemic prevention and control as the pathogenicity of the Omicron virus weakens, more people are vaccinated, and experience in virus containment is accumulated,” Sun said in comments posted on state media.

Sun also urged further “optimization” of testing, treating and quarantine policies.

The mention of weakened pathogenicity contrasts with previous messages from the authorities about the lethality of the virus.

“Sun’s speech, in addition to the remarkable relaxation of COVID control measures in Guangzhou yesterday, sends another strong signal that the zero-COVID policy will end in the coming months,” Nomura analysts said in a research note. .

“These two events perhaps point to the beginning of the end of zero-COVID.”

In the capital, Beijing, some communities have begun to prepare for the changes.

A community in the east of the city conducted an online survey this week about the possibility of positive cases isolating at home, residents said.

“I certainly welcome our residential community’s decision to hold this vote regardless of the outcome,” said resident Tom Simpson, managing director for China at the China-Britain Business Council.

He said his main concern was being forced into a quarantine facility, where “conditions can be bleak, to say the least.”

Leading nationalist commentator Hu Xijin said in a social media post on Wednesday that many asymptomatic coronavirus carriers in Beijing were already self-quarantined at home.

REOPENING NEXT YEAR?

Expectations have grown around the world that China, while still trying to contain infections, could try to reopen its borders sometime next year once it achieves better vaccination rates among their hesitant elders.

Health experts warn of widespread illness and death if COVID is released before vaccination is ramped up.

Chinese stocks and markets around the world initially fell after weekend protests in Shanghai, Beijing and other cities, but then rallied on hopes that public pressure could lead to a new approach by the authorities.

More outbreaks of COVID could affect economic activity in China in the near term, the International Monetary Fund said on Wednesday, adding that it saw room for a safe recalibration of policies that could allow economic growth to pick up in 2023.

China’s strict containment measures have slowed domestic economic activity this year and have spread to other countries through supply chain disruptions.

Following downbeat data from an official survey on Wednesday, the Caixin/S&P Global Manufacturing Purchasing Managers’ Index showed factory activity contracted in November for the fourth straight month. read more

While the change in tone on COVID seems a response to public discontent with the strict measures, the authorities are also searching for questioning those present at the demonstrations.

The China Dissent Monitor, run by the US government-funded Freedom House, estimated that at least 27 demonstrations took place in China between Saturday and Monday. Australia’s ASPI think tank estimated 51 protests in 24 cities.

Additional reporting by Julie Zhu in Hong Kong and Kevin Huang and Ellen Zhang in Beijing; Written by Marius Zaharia and John Geddie; Edited by Michael Perry, Robert Birsel

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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