China begins to relax coronavirus restrictions in Hubei province as new infections subside

As of midnight on Tuesday, outbound travel for Hubei province will resume with exception of Wuhan city, where outbreak began

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People in central China, where coronavirus was first detected, are now allowed to go back to work and public transport has restarted as some normality slowly returns
People in central China, where coronavirus was first detected, are now allowed to go back to work and public transport has restarted as some normality slowly returns Credit: AFP

Chinese health authorities announced the easing of lockdowns in Hubei province, where the coronavirus pandemic emerged late last year, on Tuesday – even as other parts of the country ramped up curbs against imported infections. 

As of midnight, outbound travel for Hubei province will resume with the exception of Wuhan city, where restrictions will be lifted on April 8, the local health commission announced. Wuhan has been in total lockdown since January 23. 

Those seeking to travel out of the area will need to have a green health tracking code, a QR (Quick Response) code obtained via Chinese apps. The government has not clarified whether the latest directive supersedes previous announcements allowing non-Hubei residents to apply for permission to leave after being tested for coronavirus, or whether procuring the health code will suffice. 

Migrant labourers leaving Wuhan, the epicentre of the outbreak, will also be required to undergo nucleic acid tests before being allowed to leave on government-arranged transport, authorities said. 

It is unclear, however, whether local officials will allow such people to enter other cities and provinces. In Beijing, Hubei residents have continued to report trouble getting in.

The developments have added to optimism that the worst is over in China, although concerns persist over whether the figures reported by the authorities continue to accurately reflect the scale of the outbreak. 

Chinese health officials are not counting asymptomatic patients who test positive, nor those discharged from hospital with follow-up results that continue to confirm a coronavirus infection. 

A picture circulated online of a Wuhan housing compound notice informing residents that two new cases had been found, dated March 20 – a day on which the government reported zero cases in the city. 

Local authorities later said the two cases had been confirmed previously, though China’s poor track record with transparency and bungled initial response – including the silencing of whistleblowers – continues to create doubt in the numbers both at home and abroad. 

Infection figures only began to subside a few weeks ago after China changed the way in which it would count cases

Risks of a second outbreak remain as infections due to travellers arriving from abroad, many of whom are Chinese nationals fleeing virus-hit countries, continue to tick upwards. 

China's national health commission reported 78 new infections on Monday, roughly double the number of cases a day before. Most were imported illnesses, with only four locally transmitted cases, including one in Wuhan.

Beijing clocked the most cases at 31, followed by Guangdong province, in the south, with 14, and Shanghai with nine. Across the country, there are now 427 imported coronavirus cases, and at least three people have been infected locally via a traveller arriving from abroad.

Authorities are increasing containment measures on international passengers arriving in China, with Beijing authorities saying on Tuesday that those entering the city will be subject to centralised quarantine and health checks. Prior to this, some people had been allowed to self-isolate. 

The southern city of Shenzhen also said it would test all arrivals. Macau, a Chinese territory and gambling hub, banning all visitors from mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. Foreigners were already barred from entering.

The coronavirus epidemic has infected about 382,000 people worldwide, killing more than 16,600 people.

Additional reporting by Yiyin Zhong