The Chinese capital Beijing on Tuesday lifted the need to show a negative COVID test result to enter supermarkets and offices, marking a further easing of restrictions across the country following recent historic protests.
“Beijing prepares for life again,” read a headline in the government-run China Daily newspaper, adding that people were “gradually assuming” the slow return to normalcy.
Further relaxation is looming after a series of demonstrations marked the biggest display of public discontent in mainland China since President Xi Jinping took power in 2012.
“This could be the first step towards reopening after this pandemic,” Beijing resident Hu Dongxu, 27, told Reuters as he swiped his travel card to enter a train station in the capital, which has also eliminated the need for checks to travel on the subway.
The change comes as senior officials have softened their tone on the severity of the virus, bringing China closer to what other countries have been saying for more than a year by abandoning restrictions and opting to live with the virus.
China could announce 10 new nationwide easing measures as early as Wednesday, two sources with knowledge of the matter told Reuters, as cities across the country have been lifting localized lockdowns.
This has sparked optimism among investors for a broader reopening of the world’s second-largest economy that could boost global growth.
However, despite the authorities’ reassuring words, passenger traffic in major cities, such as Beijing and Chongqing, is still well below previous levels.
Some people continue to fear catching the virus, especially the elderly, many of whom remain unvaccinated, while there are also concerns about the pressure this relaxation could put on China’s fragile health system.
China has reported 5,235 COVID-related deaths as of Monday, but some experts have warned that the figure could exceed one million if the exit is too hasty.
Nomura analysts estimate that the now-confined areas amount to about 19.3% of China’s total GDP, up from 25.1% last Monday.
This is the first decline in Nomura’s COVID index, which has been closely watched since early October, nearly two months ago.
Meanwhile, authorities continue to downplay the dangers posed by the virus.
Tong Zhaohui, director of the Beijing Institute of Respiratory Diseases, said Monday that the latest variant of the disease, omicron, had caused fewer cases of severe illness than the 2009 global flu outbreak, according to Chinese state television.
China’s management of the disease could move to the next phase as early as January, to category B, less stringent from the current top-level category A infectious disease, Reuters exclusively reported on Monday.
“The most difficult period has passed,” the official Xinhua news agency said in a commentary published late on Monday, alluding to the weakening pathogenicity of the virus and efforts to vaccinate 90% of the population.
Analysts now forecast that China could reopen the economy and remove border controls ahead of schedule next year, with some expecting a full opening in the spring.
However, more than half of Chinese say they will postpone their trips abroad, for periods ranging from several months to more than a year, even if borders reopen tomorrow, according to a study on Tuesday.
Fear of contagion from the disease was the main concern of those who said they would postpone travel in a survey conducted by consultancy Oliver Wyman of 4,000 consumers in China.