China said on Wednesday it would allow COVID patients with mild symptoms to isolate at home, as part of a series of new measures marking a major shift in its tough anti-virus policy that has battered its economy and sparked historic protests.
The relaxation of the rules, which also remove the requirement to present a negative test when traveling from one region to another, comes at a time when senior officials have toned down warnings about the dangers posed by COVID-19.
This has raised prospects that Beijing can slowly catch up with the rest of the world and start reopening its economy three years after the pandemic, which erupted in the central Chinese city of Wuhan in late 2019.
Investors were quick to celebrate the prospect of a respite for the world’s second-largest economy and the possibility of a shift toward lifting border controls next year.
“This policy shift is a big step forward,” said Zhiwei Zhang, chief economist at Pinpoint Asset Management.
“I expect China to fully reopen its borders no later than mid-2023.”
China is scheduled to hold a press conference at 15:00 (07:00 GMT) on the “optimization” of its COVID control measures, state media reported, after President Xi Jinping chaired a meeting of the Communist Party’s Politburo on Tuesday.
Late last month, cities across China were rocked by protests against the harsh COVID crackdown, in what was the biggest show of public discontent since Xi came to power in 2012.
While those protests dissipated within days in the face of heavy police presence, cities and regions across the country began announcing a mix of easing measures that fueled expectations for Wednesday’s announcement.
Many of the measures taken by different cities or regions were reflected in the list of policy changes published by the National Health Authority on Wednesday.
But the easing of restrictions has triggered a flood of purchases of preventive drugs, as some residents, especially the unvaccinated elderly, feel more vulnerable to the virus.
In recent days, authorities across the country have warned of supply shortages and abusive retail prices.
“Please buy rationally, buy based on demand and don’t stock up blindly,” the Beijing Municipal Food and Drug Administration told the state-run Beijing Evening News.