China will lift quarantine requirements for international arrivals from Jan. 8, a major step toward reopening its borders, which have been cut off from the rest of the world for nearly three years.
China’s National Health Commission (NHC) said in an announcement late on Monday that inbound travelers only need to show a negative result of a Covid test obtained within 48 hours before departure. They are currently in hotel quarantine for five days and self-isolating at home for three days.
Restrictions on the number and passenger capacity of airlines’ international flights will also be lifted, the announcement said.
The loosening of the borders is part of a broader move by China to scrap remnants of its long-standing zero-coronavirus policy, which was abruptly abandoned earlier this month following national protests over its heavy social and economic toll.
The sudden policy U-turn caught the public and the country’s fragile health system by surprise, leading to widespread shortages of cold and fever medicines and leaving hospitals scrambling to deal with an unprecedented surge in infections.
After lifting lockdowns, mass testing and allowing positive patients to isolate at home, the government is now rolling back other remaining precautions, including contact tracing.
Since March 2020, China has sealed its borders to prevent the spread of the virus and remains in global isolation even as the rest of the world reopens and emerges from the pandemic.
Foreigners are largely banned from entering China, except for limited business or family visits. The National Health Commission said it would further “optimize” arrangements for foreigners to come to China for work, business, study or visit relatives, and “provide convenience” for their visa applications.
The lifting of travel restrictions has also greatly eased the pressure on Chinese citizens studying or working abroad. Those who cannot afford skyrocketing airfare, lengthy hotel quarantines or onerous testing requirements have not been able to return home for three years.
Authorities also pledged to resume outbound travel by Chinese citizens in an orderly manner, depending on the international epidemic situation and the capabilities of various domestic services — though it did not provide a timetable or implementation details.
On Chinese social media, many celebrated the long-awaited relaxation of international travel. Chinese travel booking site Ctrip said searches for popular overseas travel destinations on the platform jumped 10-fold within an hour of the announcement of the new policy.
Others lament the pain, loss and missed opportunities of the past few years.
“How many people who have crossed borders, from international students to workers making a living in Africa, have had to change their life plans? How many families have been torn apart, unable to see their loved ones for the last time? How many three years are there in our lives? These three years Changed us forever,” a Chinese journalist wrote on the microblogging site Weibo.
China’s top health authority made a sweeping announcement on Monday as a plan of action to lower its level of Covid management.
Since 2020, China has classified Covid as a category B infectious disease but treated it as a category A disease, comparing it to bubonic plague or cholera and empowering local authorities to impose lockdowns and other restrictions. It will now be considered a Category B disease, in the same category as HIV and bird flu.
The committee also changed the official Chinese name of Covid from “new type of coronavirus pneumonia” to “new type of coronavirus infection”, saying the modification “better fits the current characteristics and danger level of the disease”.
“The less lethal Omicron variant has become the dominant strain of SARS-Cov-2, with only rare cases developing pneumonia,” the NHC said in a statement.
China’s top leaders recently said they would refocus on growth next year and bet on easing pandemic restrictions to boost the economy.
According to a statement from the National Health Commission, China’s current focus is on preparing sufficient medical resources. The National Health Commission added that large and medium-sized cities need to quickly transform temporary centralized Covid-quarantine facilities “square cabins” into designated hospitals with sufficient health personnel.
The NHC also did not completely rule out the possibility of temporary and localized restrictions in the future.
“If we manage outbreaks, we should pay special attention to real-time global assessments of the intensity of the outbreak – the strain on health systems and the general state of society – and take appropriate legal measures to restrict the movement and movement of people in a flexible manner. ways to flatten the curve,” it said in the statement, adding that if the outbreak became severe, lockdowns could be reimposed in nursing homes.
– Selina Wang, CNN and Laura He contributed to this report