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Workers from the restaurant industry line up for Covid-19 tests in Beijing on Saturday. Photo: AP

Zero-Covid is still the best choice for China now, top adviser says

  • Omicron remains an unknown and more variants will come along, Liang Wannian warns
  • The country’s approach has put it in a ‘safe position and has been cost-effective’
China’s zero-Covid policy is still the “best choice available” as Omicron looks set to dominate, according to the country’s top government adviser on the coronavirus.
Liang Wannian, a former National Health Commission official and head of a panel of experts advising the government on its coronavirus strategy, gave the assessment on Saturday after many countries started easing pandemic restrictions in response to the highly transmissible but less severe Omicron variant.

Asked whether China would consider easing rules now that most people were fully vaccinated, Liang warned that hospitalisations and deaths had risen in many countries after removing controls.

“If we look at the pandemic from a global perspective, it is still at an acute phase. There are many uncertainties in the development,” he said.

“Omicron will gradually become the main infection strain globally with its speed and impact of spread. But we are still unclear about the science behind it, such as its pathogenicity and the aftereffects of infection.”

He said China’s existing measures had effectively minimised the spread of Covid-19 and contained outbreaks within one to two rounds of the longest incubation periods.


Covid-19 roadblocks lengthen commute times for satellite city residents working in Beijing

Covid-19 roadblocks lengthen commute times for satellite city residents working in Beijing

More than 1.2 billion people in China are fully vaccinated and many experts have questioned how long China can hold fast to the zero-Covid approach, given the enormous cost of tracking cases as well as the impact on the economy.

But Liang argued that the policy was the most cost-effective option for China, particularly as the country still recorded GDP growth of 8.1 per cent last year.

“Through the zero-tolerance approach, outbreaks could be identified and dealt with quickly … Society and the economy could recover quickly. It is a relatively good strategy to balance pandemic control and the development of the economy and society,” he said.

“The total number of infections and cases of illness, severe disease and death is very low in our country, and for a country of 1.4 billion people, we have to say the cost-effectiveness is extremely high.”

“The policies [China] is adopting are useful in responding to the latest variant, and has placed [China] in a relatively safe position, avoiding massive outbreaks,” Liang said, underlining World Health Organization advice last week that Omicron would not be the final variant.

“Right now, keeping the current policies and strategies in place is the best choice available.”


Covid outbreaks loom over world’s biggest human migration as China braces for Lunar New Year rush

Covid outbreaks loom over world’s biggest human migration as China braces for Lunar New Year rush

Other countries such as Britain, Thailand and Denmark, have eased restrictions in the past week.

But China has showed no sign of relaxing its tough containment strategy, which has meant largely closing borders and implementing strict controls such as lockdowns.

On Saturday morning, the NHC reported 23 new local infections across the country, with 10 cases in Beijing, six in Tianjin, four in Henan province and three in Guangdong. In addition, 40 imported cases were reported.

Since one Omicron infection was found in the capital last week, authorities have warned of increased risk of Covid-19 transmission, particularly with the Lunar New Year travel season imminent.

‘I’ll take the risk’: people are heading for Beijing’s exits for Lunar New Year

By the end of the month, tens of millions of people are expected to be on the move, heading home from across the country or returning from overseas for one of the most important holidays of the year.

Many provincial authorities have advised people to stay put this year, warning people against “malicious return” from places identified as “high-risk areas”.

Some governments have offered bonuses for people willing to forgo holiday travel. For example, the government of Hangzhou in eastern China said workers from outside the province could get up to 500 yuan (US$79) a day if they did not travel into the city from January 31 to February 6.

China’s zero-Covid policy: how does it work?

Other cities are doubling down on testing to identify cases. In the country’s northeast near the border with Russia, Harbin said it would test everybody from Monday. While no recent local transmission has been detected in the city of about 10 million people, the government said the policy was necessary to ensure safety at China’s borders and prepare for the holiday period.

Yet, this has not stopped many from wanting to spend the week-long holiday with their family.

The Transport Ministry said 870 million trips were made around the country during the holiday last year and the total this time would be higher, possibly topping the 1.5 billion journeys recorded in 2020, when the pandemic started to take hold.

But the forecast is for well below the 3 billion trips recorded in 2019.