Mass exodus from Beijing after government eases coronavirus travel restrictions

Strict controls will remain on people from dozens of medium and high-risk areas. PHOTO: REUTERS

BEIJING (BLOOMBERG) - People in Beijing rushed to buy train and plane tickets out of the Chinese capital after the local government began easing travel restrictions for the first time since an outbreak that was discovered in mid-June.

Residents from areas of Beijing designated "low risk" will be allowed to leave the city without having to be tested negative for the coronavirus from July 4, Mr Pan Xuhong, deputy director of the Beijing Municipal Bureau of Public Security, said on Friday (July 3).

Strict controls will remain on people from dozens of medium and high-risk areas.

Within 30 minutes of the announcement, searches for outbound flights increased five times compared with the same period the day before, and there was a nearly 350 per cent rise in searches for hotel stays in the next two weeks, Beijing Daily reported, citing data from Tongcheng Travel.

Qunar, a Chinese travel platform, said that plane and train ticket sales more than doubled within an hour, according to the local newspaper.

A similar surge in travel demand occurred in April, when Beijing lowered its emergency response level for the first time since the epidemic first began in January.

Life was just returning to normal in June when residents were again put under severe restrictions after an outbreak was discovered in the city's biggest wholesale market, prompting local officials to shut schools and lock down some housing compounds.

The change in regulations announced on Friday makes it easier for people from low-risk areas to leave the city.

However, local governments in other provinces get to decide whether or not people arriving from Beijing have to be tested or quarantined, and the rules vary across the country.

The cluster of infections in Beijing, which grew to 331 in less than a month, threatened China's nascent economic recovery and posed a test for its top leaders who had promoted a narrative that they handled the pandemic better than many Western nations.

The city reported two new cases on July 2.

Beijing opted not to employ the same citywide lockdown that was used to stem flare-ups in other parts of China, in order to keep the economy running in the city of more than 20 million where the country's business and political elite reside.

Instead, the authorities relied on an aggressive testing and contact tracing campaign and a "health code" system available through residents' mobile phones that can show whether someone is at risk of being infected.

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