Schools in Beijing have moved lessons online, restaurants have stopped indoor dining and most workers have stopped going into the office following a rise in infections and the first Covid-related deaths in China since May. Similar restrictions have been introduced in other cities despite official moves to make the response to outbreaks more targeted and to calibrate the country’s zero-Covid policy.
Two men, one aged 88 and the other 87, and a 91-year-old woman died in Beijing over the weekend as new daily cases in the city approached 1,000. One of the men died of sepsis triggered by a lung infection, and the other man and the woman who died both had serious, underlying health conditions.
Liu Xiaofeng, deputy director of the Beijing Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, said on Monday that the city’s local authorities had to take action to control the outbreaks.
“The city will insist on lowering social mobility, areas with heavier outbreaks should have flexible working schedules, reduce the number of people coming into offices, launch online learning and limit visitors to public areas,” he told a press conference.
China reported almost 27,000 new Covid cases on Monday, more than 90 per cent of them asymptomatic, with some of the biggest outbreaks in the port city of Guangzhou in the south of the country and Chongqing in the southwest. Shijiazhuang, a city in the northern Hebei province, reintroduced mass PCR testing and told people to stay at home after a brief relaxation of the policy was followed by a sharp increase in infections.
Earlier this month, the Chinese authorities published a 20-point plan to “optimise” the zero-Covid policy, which included smaller, shorter, more targeted lockdowns, less frequent testing where there is no outbreak of infection and a reduction in contract tracing. Local authorities were discouraged from introducing sweeping lockdowns and were told that, instead of shutting down entire complexes, they should confine the restrictions to the building where an outbreak occurred.
It also called for the vaccination programme to be stepped up so that more elderly people would receive booster shots, more intensive care beds in hospitals and better access to drugs to treat those who become ill with Covid. The length of centralised quarantine for international travellers arriving in China has been cut from seven days to five, followed by three days of self-isolation at home.
Since the plan was published, daily cases across the country have doubled and Beijing, which has avoided the lengthy lockdowns imposed on cities including Shanghai, has come under the spotlight.
“The city is facing the most complex and severe prevention and control situation since the outbreak of the coronavirus epidemic, and is in the most critical and tight moment,” Mr Liu said.
Stock markets suffered, oil prices fell and the dollar rose against other currencies on Monday as investors feared that China’s easing of Covid restrictions could falter or go into reverse. Markets had been betting that China opening up could help the global economy to recover faster than expected.
Meanwhile, Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee tested positive for Covid-19, days after his trip abroad for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Thailand. His positive test comes amid a rising case load in Hong Kong. The city reported 7,763 new infections on Sunday and 13 deaths.