China has lifted tough pandemic restrictions on transport workers that have slowed the flow of freight in the country, as Beijing rapidly eases its economically damaging zero-Covid policy.
The order to local governments follows moves to reopen the country after nearly three years of a stifling elimination strategy for Covid-19 that has led to lockdowns and border closures, hitting business.
The State Council, China’s cabinet, said long-haul truckers should no longer have to work on “closed loop arrangements”, under which they have been subjected to long quarantines, and said authorities should not subject them to constant PCR testing.
The country’s roads and ports had been riddled with checkpoints at which drivers have had to show a recent negative PCR test and health code, congesting the flow of cargo and slowing the nation’s economic recovery.
“[Local governments should] make every effort to ensure the transportation service of vaccines, antigen detection reagents, medicines, masks and other medical materials,” the State Council added in the notice.
China also eased restrictions on air crew, according to Hong Kong airline Cathay Pacific. Crew will only have to spend three days in Hong Kong before flying to the mainland, down from seven. “We welcome this adjustment,” the airline said.
The sudden about-face on the virus followed nationwide protests and an economic slowdown spearheaded by a property liquidity crisis. The reopening, however, has sparked concerns of a deadly “exit wave” of Covid cases due to inadequate healthcare resources and lower vaccination rates among the elderly.
China reported just 10,815 new Covid-19 infections for December 10 and no new deaths. But analysts said considering the drop in testing requirements since the policy shift, the statistics were unlikely to reflect the situation on the ground.
In central Beijing at the weekend, streets and shopping malls were virtually deserted as many people stayed home. Multiple residents who had caught Covid-19 told the Financial Times they were isolating in their homes without notifying the authorities of their cases.
“The transitional phase will likely be bumpy as the country may need to grapple with surging cases and increasingly stretched health systems. Near-term, we may see growth dip,” Jing Li, HSBC’s chief economist for Greater China, said. “But with vaccination rates increasing and virus control measures eased over time, we are likely to see a subsequent strong recovery.”
China has a gross domestic product growth target of 5.5 per cent this year but HSBC’s forecast for 2022 is 3 per cent.
China’s leading epidemiologists, such as Zhong Nanshan and Li Lanjuan, have assured the public of the milder nature of the Omicron variant in state media interviews in recent days after being largely out of public view for months.
Their reappearance has provoked a backlash from netizens, with some questioning “the timing”, as they used to emphasise the high infectiousness of the variant in domestic media but now advocate for reopening in line with the government.
Netizens shared screenshots on social media contrasting comments various officials made before and after the recent policy shift.