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China's move to lift COVID travel ban sparks concern

December 28, 2022

People in China are rushing to see their loved ones abroad, now that travel restrictions have been lifted. But experts have warned of potential new COVID variants spreading worldwide.

Passengers wearing face masks pull baggage at a departure lobby in LAX Tom Bradley International Terminal in Los Angeles, US
People in China have rushed to book international flights, but many countries are imposing restrictions on Chinese travelersImage: David McNew/Getty Images

China has announced plans to drop the government's strict COVID-19 restrictions for travel in and out of the country. From January 8, people traveling into the country will no longer have to quarantine.

The abrupt decision comes after China ended its strict domestic lockdowns and zero-COVID strategy earlier in December — a decision that has been followed by an unprecedented rise in COVID cases.

The move to drop quarantine for overseas visitors has prompted concerns about the potential for new subvariants of the virus to spread around the world.

Commenting on China's decision on Monday, US State Department spokesperson Ned Price said any time the virus was spreading it had "the potential to mutate and to pose a threat to people everywhere."

Countries impose restrictions on Chinese travelers

The rule change has already sparked a rush to book trips outside the country. Traffic on the travel website Trip.com showed searches for popular destinations like Japan, Thailand and South Korea had increased tenfold.

People in China have been under strict travel restrictions since the start of the pandemic in early 2020, meaning many people haven't seen family and friends around the world since 2019.

But travel will not be easy. Officials in many countries have outlined tighter measures for Chinese travelers due to high rates of COVID-19 in the population.

After Monday's announcement, Japan announced a cap in the number of arrivals from China, and required proof of a negative COVID test or quarantine for seven days. Malaysia and Taiwan have since followed suit, and on Wednesday Italy also imposed mandatory testing on visitors from China.

Reports suggest the Untied States is also considering imposing new restrictions on Chinese arrivals.

A health worker takes a swab sample from a man to be tested for the COVID at a hospital in Beijing
Countries like Japan and Taiwan now require travelers from China to present a negative COVID testImage: Noel Celis/AFP/Getty Images

Germany observing situation closely

For the time being, the German government has not responded to China's new travel regulations.

"We are observing the situation in China very, very attentively," said a Health Ministry spokesperson on Wednesday.

With no indication at present that a more dangerous situation is developing in this outbreak there are no travel restrictions for those entering from China, the spokesperson added. However, if a more dangerous variant develops in China, travel restrictions would be put in place to reduce the likelihood of it spreading.

China sees major COVID outbreak

Experts have warned that the situation is difficult to monitor due to inaccurate reporting on cases in China. China has stopped mass testing and no longer reports asymptomatic cases. The combination means the official data is unlikely to be a true reflection of the situation.

Modelling data from the United Kingdom estimates there are now more than 1 million cases per day in China, and predicts a peak of 4.2 million cases a day by March 2023. But little data exists about the subvariants currently in circulation.

As the zero-COVID strategy came to an end in early December, experts warned that herd immunity in China from COVID-19 is relatively low after faltering booster campaigns.

Recent reports have suggested high numbers of serious COVID-19 cases are overcrowding hospitals, with death rates causing backlogs in crematoriums and morgues.

China's National Health Commission has initiated a large vaccination and booster campaign, but experts have said it's too late to prevent a major increase in COVID deaths in the coming months.

Edited by: Martin Kuebler

DW journalist Fred Schwaller wears a white T-shirt and jeans.
Fred Schwaller Science writer fascinated by the brain and the mind, and how science influences society@schwallerfred