BEIJING (BLOOMBERG) - Sales of plane tickets leaving Beijing surged shortly after the local government announced it will lower its municipal emergency response to the coronavirus outbreak to the second-highest level, from the highest level now.
As the Chinese capital prepares to host the nation's highest-profile political meeting next month, the city will relax quarantine requirements for domestic travellers from low-risks areas starting on Thursday (April 30), according to Ms Chen Bei, deputy secretary-general for the Beijing municipal government.
The easing does not apply to overseas visitors, as well as travellers from Hubei province and other places designated as mid- and high-risk areas, she said.
Flight bookings from Beijing increased 15 times on Qunar, a Chinese travel platform, within 30 minutes of the news being announced, according to a report by Beijing Daily citing data provided by Qunar. Searches for holiday packages and hotels also tripled, the report said.
Many social media users posted that they could finally return to Beijing without facing a mandatory 14-day quarantine after leaving the city for the Chinese New Year holiday more than three months ago. Others said they would start arranging business trips to the capital.
The immediate rush to get in and out of the city highlights the potential risk that comes with easing restrictions, as cities around the world deliberate over how to restart their economies while guarding against a second wave of infections.
"Risks of both imported cases and local rebound for Beijing should not be underestimated," Ms Chen said at the briefing.
The National People's Congress will start its annual session May 22, the official Xinhua News Agency said on Wednesday, potentially bringing thousands of officials, political advisers and journalists to Beijing.
Initial state media reports, which also said the advisory Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference planned to meet May 21, made no mention of the length or format of the sessions.
Early on in the outbreak, Chinese President Xi Jinping hosted a video meeting reportedly attended by 170,000 cadres, and some members of the NPC's Standing Committee dialled into the body's meeting this week by video, raising the possibility that parts of the NPC itself could be conducted online.
As the outbreak has come under control in China, officials have been focused on preventing a resurgence of cases. Beijing had been under some of the nation's most severe quarantine restrictions, with almost everyone entering the city required to quarantine for at least 14 days either at home or under government watch. Beijing has not reported any domestically acquired infections for more than 35 days.
The only other regions in China that have the highest emergency response levels are Tianjin and Hebei, which neighbour Beijing, and Hubei province where the coronavirus outbreak began late last year. The government lifted a 76-day lockdown on Wuhan, the hardest-hit city and capital of Hubei, on April 8 in a show of confidence that it had successfully contained the virus.
"It looks like numbers of cases in China are very low, but there will continue to be a risk of reintroduction of infections into the country and then local outbreaks," said Professor Ben Cowling, division head of epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of Hong Kong.
The government has acted "very quickly" to lock down areas in the Heilongjiang province bordering Russia even with a small number of cases, he said, which "signals their intention to prevent a second wave from beginning".