China slashes Covid-19 quarantine for overseas arrivals in biggest shift so far

Visitors at Universal Studios' Beijing resort, which reopened last week to the general public. PHOTO: REUTERS

BEIJING - In a major revision to its Covid-19 policy since the start of the pandemic, China has halved the number of days required in centralised quarantine for inbound travellers to a week.

Instead of a mandatory 14 days in isolation at a designated hotel and another seven days of health monitoring at home, the number of days has been reduced to seven and three respectively.

China has shut its borders since March 2020 and severely restricted the number of international flights in a bid to keep out the virus as the pandemic spread across the globe.

Since then, those allowed into the country such as returning Chinese nationals and foreigners with valid residence permits or visas have had to do mandatory isolation on arrival for up to 21 days, depending on individual local policies.

Chinese nationals are also not allowed to make “non-essential” travel overseas.

The National Health Commission did not say on Tuesday (June 28) when this policy change will take effect. Neither has it signalled when the country will reopen its borders. It is also unclear if local health authorities will implement this measure, especially if zero-Covid-19 continues to be its priority.

There have, however, been some easing of health protocols.

A number of cities including Beijing have since April begun to pilot a reduced quarantine duration of 10 days, as health authorities acknowledge that the Omicron variant has a shorter incubation period.

Pre-departure testing for those travelling to China has also been relaxed in a few countries in recent weeks, while those applying for work or family visas from certain countries no longer require a government-issued letter of invitation. Both these changes benefit travellers from Singapore. 

But getting a plane ticket remains a major challenge for travellers, as China still suspends airlines on inbound routes for bringing in infected passengers. 

Besides cutting quarantine time for international travellers, health authorities on Tuesday also eased their risk classification criteria, which would make it easier for people to travel within the country.

Close contacts of those infected will also be allowed to now spend seven days isolating at home instead of at a centralised facility.

Beijing and Shanghai had both reported no new cases on Monday for the first time since late February, after both cities battled their worst outbreaks since the beginning of the pandemic with lockdowns, school and business closures and city-wide testing.

A sealed area in Shanghai amid a Covid-19 lockdown on June 24, 2022. PHOTO: REUTERS

But the capital city reported one new infection on Tuesday.

As the peak summer travel season approaches, some provinces such as Shandong and Gansu have relaxed their quarantine measures for visitors from these two megacities, both prized sources of domestic tourism dollars, requiring only Covid-19 tests to be done.

Some hotels in other parts of China are even offering “seven-day stay-in packages” for travellers from these two cities so they can fulfil their week-long quarantine before they are free to go out.

Both Beijing and Shanghai’s party chiefs have in recent days reaffirmed the country’s tough zero-Covid-19 policy.

Shanghai party boss Li Qiang last Saturday declared victory over the city’s fight against the virus, saying the two-month lockdown and other Covid-19 measures were “completely correct”.

On Monday, an article by Communist Party paper Beijing Daily caused a stir after it reported Beijing party secretary Cai Qi as saying strict Covid protocols will continue to be implemented for “the next five years”.

The paper’s editor later clarified that Mr Cai did not specify a time frame.

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