China scraps some of its most controversial Covid rules, in significant step toward reopening


China announced sweeping changes to its national pandemic response on Wednesday, the clearest and most significant sign yet that the country is moving away from its strict zero-Covid approach.

In a statement reported by state broadcaster CCTV, China’s State Council unveiled 10 new guidelines that loosen some restrictions – most notably, allowing home quarantine and largely scrapping the health QR code that has been mandatory for entering most public places.

Local governments had already taken steps this week that indicated a possible change in direction – including some major cities loosening requirements on Covid testing.

But this is the first official change in Covid policy on a national level – a notable turnaround by the central government, which for the past three years insisted that the pandemic is a war only winnable by stamping out outbreaks wherever they occur, and controlling virus spread through unwavering restrictions.

Here are some of the new rules.

Since early in the pandemic, China has used health codes on mobile phones to track individuals’ health statuses. The color of these codes – in red, amber or green – decides whether users can leave their homes, use public transport and enter public places, or potentially need to quarantine.

Under the guidelines released Monday, people will be able to enter most places without showing a negative test result or their health code – a significant step after nearly three years of disruption to people’s daily routines and livelihoods.

Only a few exceptions will still require these checks, including nursing homes, medical institutions and secondary schools. Businesses can now determine their own prevention and control policies, the report added.

In another massive change, asymptomatic Covid patients or those with mild symptoms will be allowed to quarantine at home instead of being taken to a government facility.

Throughout the pandemic, Chinese residents have described the chaos and stress of going into quarantine camps, many saying it was unclear when they would be allowed to leave, and others complaining of crowded or poor conditions.

In several cases, health workers reportedly killed the pets of those taken to government quarantine, citing health risks – triggering outrage on Chinese social media each time.

The new guidelines also urge authorities to “ensure the normal functioning of society and basic medical services,” saying areas that aren’t designated high-risk should not restrict people’s movements or close businesses.

Lockdowns are only allowed in “high-risk areas,” and even then, should be “promptly” lifted if no new cases are found for five consecutive days, it said. It added that authorities are forbidden from blocking fire escapes, apartment or building entrances, and other gates, so residents can still evacuate and seek medical attention if needed.

This point comes at a particularly sensitive time, with China still reeling from a wave of rare public protest in late November and early December, that had been triggered by a deadly fire in the far western Xinjiang region. Public fury had swept the nation after videos of the incident appeared to show lockdown measures had delayed firefighters from reaching the victims.

This is a developing story. More to come