Chinese people have rushed to book overseas travel as authorities scrapped the last big plank of the country’s zero-Covid policy despite reports of hospitals being overwhelmed nationwide.
Late on Monday health authorities announced they would no longer require inbound travellers to go into quarantine, then on Tuesday the immigration authority said it would resume issuing visas for mainland residents to travel overseas from 8 January.
China has been rapidly reversing the strict Covid curbs in place since early 2020 after protests that broke out in November in the Chinese mainland’s biggest show of public discontent since President Xi Jinping took power in 2012.
His subsequent abrupt U-turn on the curbs, which have battered the $17tn (£14.14tn) economy, means the virus is now spreading largely unchecked across the country of 1.4 billion people.
The National Health Commission (NHC) announced over the weekend that it had stopped publishing daily Covid data, and official statistics showed only one Covid death in the seven days to Monday, fuelling doubts among health experts and residents about the government’s data. The numbers are inconsistent with the experience of much less populous countries after they reopened.
Reports suggest hospitals across China have become overwhelmed with patients and that the virus is also spreading rapidly through frontline medical workers.
On Tuesday doctors told Reuters that the hospitals they were working at had been overwhelmed with up to six times more patients than usual, most of them elderly.
In a sign that the death toll from Covid is also rising, local media reported that the Peking and Tsinghua universities in Beijing have posted a growing number of obituary notices of mostly elderly staff and faculty members over the past month.
The decision by the world’s second-largest economy to open its borders, coupled with a lack of data transparency, has worried some of China’s regional neighbours.
The Japanese prime minister, Fumio Kishida, said on Tuesday his country would require Covid tests for all visitors from China as a temporary emergency measure from Friday. Those who test positive will have to quarantine for seven days at designated facilities and their samples will be used for genome analysis. The Japanese government also plans to limit airlines increasing flights to China.
“There are growing worries in Japan,” Kishida said. “We have decided to take a temporary special measure to respond to the situation.”
A lack of information and transparency on the part of China was making it difficult to come up with safety measures. There were huge discrepancies between information from central and local authorities, and between the government and private organisations, he said.
Data from the Chinese travel platform Ctrip showed that searches for popular cross-border destinations had increased 10-fold within half an hour of the quarantine news breaking on Monday night. Macau, Hong Kong, Japan, Thailand and South Korea were the most sought-after destinations, according to Ctrip. Data from Trip.com showed outbound flight bookings were up 254% early on Tuesday from the day before.
While many in China reacted to the relaxation of travel rules with joy, many more were scrambling to get hold of medical supplies to fight Covid. Authorities have introduced measures to properly allocate medical resources, including requisitioning the production of medical supplies.
Nurses and doctors have been asked to work while sick and retired medical workers in rural communities were being rehired to help, state media reported. “Some places are facing great pressure at hospital emergency wards and intensive care units,” an NHC official, Jiao Yahui, told reporters.
The country’s banking and insurance regulator said on Tuesday it would ramp up financial support to small and private businesses in the catering and tourism sectors, which were among the hardest-hit industries amid the pandemic.
China’s shortages of Covid-related medicines have trigged a run for painkillers in neighbouring Taiwan. Two Taiwanese who work in Beijing and Shenzhen and are on vacation in Taipei told the Guardian last week that they planned to stock up on Panadol and related drugs when they return to the mainland in several weeks.
In response to increasing demand, the Taiwan government considered placing a curb on bulk-buying of certain painkillers last week, but the chief of its food and drug administration told reporters on Monday that the authority would not impose a compulsory curb on purchases after meeting representatives of pharmacies and retailers.
Reuters and Agence France-Presse contributed to this report