China denies Beijing to lock down over Covid-19 as residents rush to buy food

Shoppers at a supermarket in Beijing on May 12, 2022. PHOTO: AFP

BEIJING (BLOOMBERG) - Beijing officials denied the city will be locked down and urged people not to hoard food as residents flocked to grocery stores amid growing concern the Chinese capital's response to a persistent Covid-19 outbreak is about to be intensified.

Speculation that Beijing will be locked down or put into a "quiet period" are rumours, Mr Xu Hejian, a spokesman for the Beijing municipal government said at a press briefing on Thursday (May 12).

The city's some 20 million residents do not need to be nervous about food supply and deliveries are not halted, Mr Xu said.

"It is unnecessary to hoard food," he said. "Residents don't need to worry, the city's operations won't be affected."

The yuan weakened offshore late Thursday as rumours of the lockdown took hold, recovering some of its losses after the official denial to trade down 0.7 per cent versus the dollar as of 6.45pm local time.

Ahead of the briefing, rumours that Beijing - which has seen an escalating raft of pandemic restrictions the past few weeks - may be subject to a lockdown like fellow megalopolis Shanghai raced through the city.

Queues quickly started to form on Thursday afternoon at grocery stores, where shelves were being emptied of fresh vegetables and other staples. Delivery times on online grocery apps also extended to multiple hours.

Instead of a lockdown, the municipal government said on Thursday it will conduct three rounds of mass testing for people living in the city's 11 main districts and one economic zone through the weekend, while scenic spots and hotels in the city's five surrounding suburb districts will be shuttered.

Beijing saw 36 new Covid-19 cases in the 24 hours to 3pm local time, with just four of the infections in the community.

China's strict Covid Zero policy sees all positive cases and their close contacts isolated in government quarantine sites. The strategy, which relies on a playbook of closed borders, quarantines, lockdowns and mass testing, is leaving the country increasingly isolated as the rest of the world lives with Covid-19 and opens up.

Despite the relatively low case load reported each day, officials reiterated that the city is locked in a "gruelling battle" to extinguish the virus from circulating in the community. China only considers an outbreak successfully contained when infections are detected solely from people already in quarantine facilities.

Since April 22, the Chinese capital has reported nearly a thousand infections, with 45 per cent of patients considered at high risk of developing severe disease, an official from the city's health commission told reporters on Thursday. Two elderly male patients with underlying diseases of Alzheimer's and lung cancer are in severe condition.

Shanghai has already been locked down for more than a month, with food shortages and delivery delays marking the first few weeks of restrictions. Most of that city's 25 million residents remain under some form of lockdown, as officials seek to eliminate Covid-19 from within the community, despite the increasing economic and social costs.

Shanghai neighbourhoods have announced "quiet periods", where residents are not allowed to go outside and deliveries are curbed, while more people are being shipped off to government-run isolation centres under a new definition of what it means to be a close contact.

Beijing has never seen a city-wide lockdown during the pandemic, even during the early days of 2020, so such a move there - in China's centre of power - would be seen as hugely symbolic.

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