China will stop requiring inbound travellers to go into quarantine starting from January 8, the National Health Commission says in a major step towards opening its borders, which have been largely shut since early 2020.
China’s management of COVID-19 will also be downgraded to the less strict Category B from the current top-level Category A, the health authority said in a statement on Monday. It said the reason for this decision was that the virus has become less virulent and COVID-19 would gradually evolve into a common respiratory infection.
Three years of zero-tolerance measures, from shuttered borders to frequent lockdowns, have battered China’s economy. Last month, frustrations with the restrictions caused the mainland’s biggest show of public discontent since President Xi Jinping took power in 2012.
Since then, China has made an abrupt policy U-turn, dropping nearly all of its domestic COVID curbs in a move that has left hospitals across the country scrambling to cope with a nationwide wave of infections.
As part of its zero-COVID policy, strict requirements had been placed on inbound travellers, including five days of mandatory quarantine at a government-supervised facility and three more of isolation at home.
That restriction and one on the number of passengers allowed on international flights will be removed. Travellers entering China will still have to undergo PCR testing 48 hours before departure, the health authority said.
Arrangements for foreigners to come to China, such as for work and business, will be improved and the necessary visas will also be facilitated, the authority said.
Passenger entry and exit at sea and land ports will gradually resume while the outbound travel of Chinese nationals will be restored “in an orderly manner”, it said.
The policy is a major turnaround in a country that since January 2020 had given local authorities the power to quarantine patients and their close contacts and lock down regions.
While China downgrades its management of the new coronavirus, the National Health Commission said epidemic prevention and control protocols at key institutions such as elderly care institutions will be strengthened.
If an outbreak becomes severe, the institution will adopt so-called “closed management” to prevent the spread of infections, the commission said.
China will also further increase the vaccination rate among the elderly and promote second doses among people at high risk of severe illness.
China is the last major country to move towards treating COVID as endemic. Its containment measures had slowed the $17 trillion economy to its lowest growth rate in nearly half a century, disrupting global supply chains and trade.