Shanghai says no Covid-19 lockdown for now, tells bankers to work at home

People queue for Covid-19 mass testing in public park in Shanghai on March 15, 2022. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

SHANGHAI (BLOOMBERG) - Shanghai ruled out imposing a broad lockdown for now, while urging workers in its main financial and business district to work from home as officials try to rein in a swelling Covid-19 outbreak in one of China's biggest and most important cities.

Mr Gu Honghui, deputy secretary general of the Shanghai government, told reporters on Tuesday (March 15) that "there's no need to lock down the city" at the moment, with authorities keen to minimise the impact of virus mitigation efforts on businesses and people's lives.

Instead, the authority overseeing the Pudong district, home to China's main stock exchange and the local headquarters of a bevy of financial firms, called for more flexible work arrangements in a statement on its official WeChat account.

Battling its largest nationwide outbreak in two years, China locked down Langfang, a city near Beijing's new airport on Tuesday, following similar moves earlier this week in the southern tech hub of Shenzhen and the northeastern province of Jilin.

That has fuelled concern the country's financial gateway could be next, with virus cases in Shanghai on the rise and some buildings locked down.

China is stepping up its tactics to quell the virus, continuing to deploy the Covid-19 Zero playbook that has left it isolated from the rest of the world in a bid to bring cases back to near zero.

While it has been able to avoid more stringent measures like lockdowns in bigger cities in the past, the more contagious Omicron variant is challenging that approach like never before.

More than 100 international flights will be diverted away from Shanghai from March 21, to ease pressure on quarantine hotels and isolation facilities. China isolates all virus cases, regardless of their severity, as a way of halting spread.

Shanghai reported 202 new Covid-19 infections on Tuesday, as cases in the financial hub continue to climb to record high. Nationally, China reported 3,054 new infections on Wednesday, down from more than 5,000 cases a day earlier, as the outbreak in Jilin - which has been recording the most cases each day of all the flareups - appears to peak.

Home to some 25 million people, Shanghai has shut most schools and public parks and blocked bus travel from other provinces. The city has also imposed movement restrictions at college campuses, requiring people to provide two negative nucleic acid test results within the past 48 hours to enter as well as mandating permission to leave the campuses, according to a report in the Beijing Daily.

More lockdowns

Workers are seen next to some lockdown areas after the detection of new cases of Covid-19 in Shanghai on March 14, 2022. PHOTO: AFP

China has imposed more lockdowns over the past week than at any point in the pandemic, with Shenzhen, Langfang City near Beijing, Changchun in the northeast and then its surrounding province, Jilin, all put under movement restrictions. Dongguan, a key manufacturing hub in the southern province of Guangdong, is also subject to some curbs, with factories in areas with virus cases told to close.

While local authorities in Dongguan and Shenzhen say plants outside the highest risk districts can continue operating if they keep staff in a bubble with regular testing, some big companies have halted operations.

Apple's iPhone maker Hon Hai Precision Industry, known as Foxconn, suspended production at its Shenzhen sites on Monday as authorities undertake multiple rounds of mass testing.

In Jilin, where the capital Changchun is a key auto-making hub, Toyota Motor and Volkswagen have paused operations. Banks including Nomura Holdings, and Morgan Stanley say China's resource-intensive approach to containing Covid-19 - a strategy that has delivered one of the lowest death tolls globally, but is becoming increasingly difficult to deploy - damp the country's growth outlook.

There are also concerns they could be a drag on the world economy, which is facing a raft of challenges this year.

China isn't expected to ease up meaningfully on "Covid Zero" before 2023, given the need for stability in a politically important year for President Xi Jinping, people familiar with China's thinking have told Bloomberg News.

Still, there are signs the country is girding for an uptick in cases, with rules around hospitalisation and quarantining changed late on Tuesday.

Those infected but asymptomatic or only displaying mild symptoms will go to specialised isolation facilities, a move aimed at freeing up hospital space for severe cases.

One of the main reasons China is reluctant to ease border curbs and live with the virus like other countries is the state of its hospital system, which is hobbled by lopsided distribution of resources. Also, patients who have been discharged after an infection now only have to isolate at home for seven days, down from 14 days previously.

Health officials on Tuesday urged the country's elderly to get vaccinated amid concern they are particularly vulnerable as omicron spreads. About two thirds of the elderly patients who got severe Covid-19 in China are unvaccinated, Ms Jiao Yahui, an official with the National Health Commission said at a briefing in Beijing on Tuesday.

The push comes as Hong Kong contends with its most lethal wave of Covid-19 yet, with elderly people, particularly those who are unvaccinated, dying at unprecedented rates. Many had shunned vaccination on concern they could face complications, particularly if they had other conditions.

More than 80 per cent of people aged over 60 on the mainland have been fully vaccinated against Covid-19, health officials said on Tuesday in Beijing.

Still, they said there will be an effort to get more people in their 80s vaccinated.

The country also approved the use of at-home rapid antigen tests kits at the end of last week, and has authorised Pfizer's coronavirus pill, seen as evidence Beijing is at least thinking about preparing for more cases.

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