China Covid testing: UK ‘reviewing’ to bring in tests for Chinese visitors after eased travel restrictions

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China has announced it will scrap quarantine for travellers from 8 January

The UK government appeared to backtrack on its suggestion of no mandatory Covid testing for visitors from China, after the US became the latest country to impose restrictions.

Critics, including two former health ministers, called for testing to be introduced after briefings  that there were “no plans” to introduce tests for arrivals from China.

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However earlier today, 29 December, Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said that the possibility of imposing restrictions on visitors from the East Asian country was “under review”.

Asked about the government’s position during a visit to military personnel covering for Border Force officials at Manchester Airport, Mr Wallace replied: “The Government is looking at that, it’s under review. We noticed obviously what the United States has done and India and I think Italy has looked at it.

“We keep under review all the time, obviously, health threats to the United Kingdom, wherever they may be.”

Recently the US joined Italy, India, Taiwan, South Korea, Malaysia and Japan in announcing new measures as China shifts away from its zero-Covid policy after three years of closed borders and will resume issuing ordinary visas and passports as the country rolls back some of the world’s strictest anti-virus controls.

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On Monday (26 December) the National Health Commission announced Covid will be downgraded to a Class B infectious disease on 8 January, and quarantine will be axed- although incoming travellers will need to take a PCR test.

Authorities said they would "optimise" visa arrangements for foreigners wishing to come to China for work, and study, as well as family visits and reunions and tourism. The National Immigration Administration of China announced on Tuesday (27 December) the government will “gradually resume” allowing in foreign visitors and gave no indication when full-scale tourist travel from abroad might be allowed. It will start taking applications, and Chinese citizens wishing to apply for passports to travel abroad will also be able to do so from 8 January 2023.

Health experts and economists expected the ruling Communist Party to keep restrictions on travel into China until at least mid-2023.

China has announced it will scrap quarantine for travellers from 8 JanuaryChina has announced it will scrap quarantine for travellers from 8 January
China has announced it will scrap quarantine for travellers from 8 January | Getty Images

Why has China rolled back its zero-covid restrictions? 

The move comes as President Xi Jinping’s government tries to reverse an economic slump. Protests against the severe policies rippled throughout the country as many people became frustrated at the strict rules. A week after the protests, China lifted some of its most severe Covid policies, such as forcing people into quarantine camps and allowing people to isolate at home rather than in state facilities.

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However, this new move opens up a potential flood of millions of Chinese going abroad for next month’s Lunar New Year holiday and could send an influx of free-spending Chinese tourists to revenue-starved destinations in Asia and Europe for Lunar New Year, which begins on 22 January.

What is the current Covid-19 situation in China?

Covid-19 infections have surged in China with hospitals reporting they are overwhelmed and elderly people are dying. However, the true toll is unknown as officials have stopped releasing Covid data. On Sunday it said it would stop publishing case numbers altogether. But British health data firm Airfinity estimated China was experiencing more than a million infections and 5,000 deaths a day.

The outbreaks prompted complaints that Beijing relaxed controls too abruptly but officials say the wave began before the changes.

China only counts deaths from pneumonia or respiratory failure in its official Covid-19 toll, a health official said last week, which excludes many deaths other countries would attribute to Covid-19. Experts have forecast one to two million deaths in China through to the end of 2023.

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Japan, India, South Korea and Taiwan have responded to the Chinese wave of infections by requiring virus tests for visitors from China.

Before the pandemic, China was the biggest source of foreign tourists for most of its Asian neighbours and an important market for Europe and the United States. Business groups have warned global companies were shifting investment away from China because foreign executives were blocked from visiting.

Travel services companies and Qunar said international ticket bookings and searches for visa information on their websites rose five to eight times after Tuesday’s announcement. Top destinations included Japan, Thailand, South Korea, the United States, Britain and Australia.

A Covid-19 patient (C) being assisted at Tianjin Nankai Hospital in Tianjin. Credit: NOEL CELIS/AFP via Getty ImagesA Covid-19 patient (C) being assisted at Tianjin Nankai Hospital in Tianjin. Credit: NOEL CELIS/AFP via Getty Images
A Covid-19 patient (C) being assisted at Tianjin Nankai Hospital in Tianjin. Credit: NOEL CELIS/AFP via Getty Images | AFP via Getty Images

Japan and India responded to China’s surge in infections by requiring virus tests for travellers from the country. US officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Washington is considering taking similar steps.

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The American Chamber of Commerce in China says more than 70% of companies that responded to a poll this month expect the impact of the latest wave of outbreaks to last no more than three months, ending in early 2023.

What countries have imposed testing on visitors from China? 

Several countries have imposed Covid testing on visitors from China:

Japan: travellers from China will be tested for Covid when arriving and those who test positive for Covid will have to quarantine for up to seven days. Flights from China will also be restricted.

India: visitors from China will need to produce a negative Civid test before arriving and anyone who has tested positive will be put into quarantine.

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Taiwan: people arriving from China, by plane or boat, will have to take Covid tests on arrival from 1 January to 31 January. Anyone testing positive will have to isolate at home.

Italy: visitors from China will be required to undertake Covid testing.

South Korea: travellers from China will require mandatory Covid testing.

Malaysia: additional tracking and surveillance measures have been put in place.

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US: from 5 January 2023 all travellers from China aged two or older must provide a negative Covid-19 test to enter the country.

UK: previously, a UK Government spokesperson said: “There are no plans to reintroduce Covid-19 testing or additional requirements for arrivals into the UK.”

However, former health ministers Lord Bethell and Steve Brine were among those to place pressure on the Government following its assertion. The comments come after Lord Bethell, who was in post during the pandemic, urged ministers to rethink their policy and follow the “sensible” approach of Italy by screening travellers for the virus on arrival.

Former Tory minister Steve Brine echoed Lord Bethell’s concerns, warning that the NHS would not be able to cope if travellers from China brought over a new variant.

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“Now, let’s just say that lots and lots of Chinese nationals want to come and visit this country with a poor vaccine, they end up getting sick. And then the NHS has frankly got enough on its plate right now without any emergency admissions, which it would of course have to deal with,” he told Times Radio.

What is the Covid-19 situation in Hong Kong? 

Meanwhile, Hong Kong will scrap some of its Covid-19 restrictions, including PCR tests for inbound travellers and vaccination requirements to enter certain venues, the city’s leader said on Wednesday. For most of the pandemic, Hong Kong has aligned itself with China’s zero-Covid strategy, requiring strict Covid-19 tests and isolation for close contacts of infected cases as well as for incoming travellers.

Hong Kong is preparing for the January reopening of its border with China, which had previously imposed harsh restrictions and snap lockdowns to stamp out the virus.

“Our society as a whole has built an extensive and high-level barrier of immunity (to Covid-19),” said Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee at a news conference. Over 80% of the city has at least three doses of the Covid-19 vaccine.

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Close contacts of those who test positive for Covid-19 will also no longer need to isolate in Hong Kong, he said, and there will no longer be a limit on the number of diners per table at restaurants. The relaxed measures will take effect from Thursday.

Masks, however, will still need to be worn in public unless residents are exercising, as doing away with masks may lead to a surge in respiratory diseases like influenza just as Hong Kong faces a seasonal surge of flu cases, said Secretary of Health Lo Chung-mau.

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