- Regular COVID testing is no longer required in several cities
- China eased various virus restrictions last Friday
- Communities worried about virus spread under relaxed rules
- Major cities including Beijing are reporting record cases for November 13
BEIJING, Nov. 14 (Reuters) – Several Chinese cities began cutting back on routine community COVID-19 testing on Monday, days after China announced a relaxation of some of its strict coronavirus measures, sparking concern in some communities as the nationwide cases continued to increase.
In the northern city of Shijiazhuang, some families expressed concern about exposing their children to the virus at school, apologizing for their children’s absence with a toothache or earache.
Other cities, including Yanji in the northeast and Hefei in the east, also said they would halt routine community COVID testing, according to official notices, stopping a practice that has become a major tax burden on communities across China.
On Friday, the National Health Commission updated its COVID rules in the most significant way relaxation from curbs and describes the changes as “tweaking” its policies to mitigate the impact on people’s lives, even as China sticks to its zero-COVID policy nearly three years after the pandemic began.
The move, which cut quarantine times for close contacts of cases and those entering the country by two days to a total of eight days, was welcomed by investors, although many experts don’t expect China to begin significant easing until March or April at the earliest.
The changes come even as several major cities, including Beijing, saw record infections on Monday, posing a challenge for authorities scrambling to quickly quell outbreaks while trying to minimize the impact on people’s lives and the economy.
Daily testing is required in some areas of Beijing.
The concern and confusion in Shijiazhuang was one of the top 5 trending topics on the Twitter-like Weibo.
The city’s Communist Party leader Zhang Chaochao said his “tweaking” of preventive measures should not be seen as “lying flat” on the part of the authorities — an expression of inaction — and that Shijiazhuang is not moving toward “complete liberation” either COVID curbs.
The city, about 295 km (183 miles) southwest of Beijing, reported 544 infections for Sunday, only three of which were classified as symptomatic.
“I am a little scared. In the future, public places will not deal with nucleic acid testing, and nucleic acid testing sites will also be closed, everyone has to pay for the tests,” wrote a Weibo user, referring to Shijiazhuang.
Gavekal Research said in a note Monday that it was “curious timing” for China to ease its COVID policy: “The combination of a deepening outbreak and the easing of key requirements has prompted debate over whether China should now gradually shifting to a de facto policy of tolerating Covid,” it said.
Nationwide, 16,072 new locally transmitted cases were reported by the National Health Commission, up from 14,761 on Sunday and the most in China since April 25, as Shanghai battled an outbreak that paralyzed the city for two months.
Beijing, Chongqing, Guangzhou and Zhengzhou all recorded their worst days yet, although the number in the capital was a few hundred cases while the other cities counted in the thousands.
Case numbers are small compared to infection rates in other countries, but China’s insistence on cleaning up outbreaks as soon as they appear as part of its zero-COVID policy has largely disrupted daily life and the economy.
Under the new rules unveiled on Friday, individuals, neighborhoods and public spaces can still be locked down, but the Health Commission has eased some measures.
In addition to shortening quarantine, secondary close contacts will no longer be identified and quarantined – removing a major inconvenience to those who have been involved in contact tracing efforts if a case is found.
Despite the easing of curbs, many experts described the measures as gradual, with some predicting China will not start reopening until after the March session of parliament at the earliest.
Analysts at Goldman Sachs said Monday that rising cases in cities like Guangzhou and Chongqing and the continuation of zero-COVID policies pose short-term economic downside risks.
Reporting by Liz Lee, Jason Xue, Wang Jing and Ryan Woo; Edited by Simon Cameron-Moore, Tony Munroe and Emelia Sithole-Matarise
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