China will drop quarantine requirements for international arrivals from January 8, in a major step toward reopening its borders that have shut the country from the rest of the world for nearly three years.
Inbound travelers will only be required to show a negative Covid test result obtained within 48 hours before departure, China’s National Health Commission (NHC) said in an announcement late on Monday. Currently, they are subject to five days of hotel quarantine and three days of self-isolation at home.
Restrictions on airlines over the number of international flights and passenger capacity will also be removed, according to the announcement.
The easing of borders is part of a broader move by China to dismantles what was left of its long-held zero-Covid policy, which was abruptly abandoned early this month following nationwide protests over its heavy social and economic toll.
The sudden policy U-turn caught the public and the country’s fragile health system unprepared, causing widespread shortages of cold and fever medicine and leaving hospitals scrambling to cope with an unprecedented surge of infections.
Having rolled back lockdowns, mass testing and allowed positive patients to quarantine at home, the government is now scrapping other remaining preventive measures, including contact tracing.
China has sealed its borders since March 2020 to prevent the spread of the virus, keeping itself in global isolation even as the rest of the world reopened and moved on from the pandemic.
Foreigners have been largely banned from entering China, apart from a limited number of business or family visits. The NHC said it will further “optimize” arrangements for foreigners to visit China for work, business, study or family reasons and “provide convenience” for their visa applications.
The scrapping of travel restrictions is also a big relief for Chinese nationals studying or working abroad. Those who could not afford the soaring prices of flight tickets, lengthy hotel quarantines or onerous testing requirements have not been able to go home for three years.
Authorities also vowed to resume outbound tourism for Chinese citizens in an orderly manner, depending on the international Covid situation and the capacity of various domestic services – although it offered no time line or details on implementation.
On Chinese social media, many celebrated the long-awaited relaxation on international travel. Ctrip, a travel booking site in China, said searches for popular overseas tourist destinations on the platform jumped 10 times within an hour of the announcement of the new policy.
Others lamented the suffering, loss and missed opportunities over the past years.
“How many people who used to straddle the borders, from overseas students to workers making a living in Africa, had to change their life plans? How many families had been separated and barred from seeing their loved ones for one last time? How many three years do we have in our lives? These three years have changed us forever,” a Chinese journalist wrote on microblogging site Weibo.
China’s top health authority made the sweeping announcement Monday as an action plan for the downgrading of its management of Covid.
Since 2020, China has classified Covid as a Category B infectious disease but treated it as a Category A disease, putting it on par with bubonic plague or cholera and empowering local authorities to impose lockdowns and other restrictions. Now, it will be treated as a Category B disease, in the same category as HIV and bird flu.
The commission also changed the official Chinese name of Covid from “novel coronavirus pneumonia” to “novel coronavirus infection,” an amendment it said is “more in line with the current characteristics and danger level of this disease.”
“The less-deadly Omicron variant has become the dominant strain of SARS-Cov-2, and only a very small number of cases developed to pneumonia,” NHC said in the statement.
China’s top leaders have signaled recently that they would shift focus back to growth next year and have bet on the relaxation of pandemic restrictions to lift the economy.
China’s current focus is to prepare sufficient medical resources, according to the NHC statement. Big and middle size cities need to quickly transform their “Fangcang”, makeshift centralized Covid quarantine facilities, into designated hospitals with enough health workers staffed, NHC added.
NHC also didn’t completely rule out the possibility for temporary and local restriction measures going forward.
“As we manage the outbreaks, we should pay special attention to real-time global assessment of the outbreak’s intensity – pressure on the health system and general situation of the society – and take appropriate lawful measures to limit people’s group activities and movement in a flexible way to flatten the curve,” it said in the statement, adding that lockdowns might be re-imposed at nursing homes if the outbreak is severe.
– CNN’s Selina Wang and Laura He contributed to this report