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China is halving quarantine times for travelers in major COVID-19 policy shift

June 28, 2022, 8:41 AM UTC
Inbound passengers wait to be taken to quarantine-designated destinations from the Beijing International Airport in Beijing on June 18, 2022.
LEO RAMIREZ—AFP via Getty Images

China reduced quarantine times for inbound travelers by half, the biggest shift yet in a COVID-19 policy that has left the world’s second-largest economy isolated as it continues to try and eliminate the virus.

Travelers will now only need to spend seven days in a quarantine facility, and then monitor their health at home for a further three days, according to a revised government protocol released Tuesday by China’s National Health Commission. That’s down from 14 days hotel quarantine in many parts of China currently, and as many as 21 days of isolation in the past. 

The change, which still leaves China an outlier in a world that is rapidly learning to live with the virus, comes after Beijing and Shanghai said they had no new locally-transmitted COVID infections on Monday, for the first time since February. The success over the highly contagious omicron variant followed a bruising four-month fight that saw millions of residents locked in their homes, exhaustive testing measures and restrictions on daily life that impacted every facet of society and the economy. 

Nationwide, China reported just 22 cases on Monday, a stark contrast to other parts of the world that are seeing thousands of new infections a day. There were another 78 infections detected among incoming travelers.

Beijing remains committed to the COVID Zero policy, which still aims to quash all trace of the virus. The new rules are designed to optimize the country’s prevention and control work, and don’t signal a change in course, said Lei Zhenglong, an NHC official.

“It’s absolutely not loosening up, but a more scientific and targeted approach,” Lei said at an afternoon briefing.

Right Direction

The move is a significant step in the right direction for China, but it’s only one part of the overall strategy, said Huang Yanzhong, a senior fellow for global health at the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations. 

“China is still way far from opening up,” he said, noting that the country requires negative COVID tests to enter — a measure many other countries dispensed with months ago. 

There is also a complex web of domestic restrictions that make it difficult for Chinese to move around inside the country. Until those are adjusted “uncertainties and risks will persist for travels into China, and the effectiveness of the current move will be squeezed,” Huang said. 

Stocks Rally

Investors used to hearing about tighter internal restrictions in China were buoyed by the news, with travel-related stocks leading the rally. Air China Ltd.’s Hong Kong-traded shares were top performers as of 3:24 p.m. local time, rising 11%. China Southern Airlines Co. and China Eastern Airlines Corp. both gained more than 5.7%. Cathay Pacific Airways Ltd. rose 6.7%

More broadly, the CSI 300 Index extended gains to 1% in Shanghai. Futures contracts on the S&P 500 also built on their advance after the announcement, while the yuan erased losses to rise both offshore and onshore. 

Testing requirements during the mandatory quarantine period were also changed in the protocol. Travelers are now required only to give throat swabs, rather than nasal ones. The new guidelines, updated for the first time since May 2021, make no mention of any vaccination requirements for travelers. 

Many countries made entry easier for inoculated travelers when they first started to open up post-COVID. 

Speaking to reporters in Beijing after the announcement, Wang Liping, an official with the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said the shift was based on science. 

Safety First

“The adjustment caters to our study of the characteristic of the omicron variant, and will not increase the risk of transmission,” Wang said. 

Three factors drove the change, said Lei Zhenglong, a National Health Commission official. China’s COVID outbreak is coming under control, the circulating omicron variant has a shorter incubation period, and previous trial runs showed a shorter quarantine period could be successful.

“China’s virus situation has gradually stabilized in the past month, despite earlier outbreaks that hit the eastern coastal region, providing a window to optimize and adjust the COVID protocol,” Lei said.

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