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Passengers arriving on international flights wait in line at the airport in Chengdu, on January 6, 2023. Image Credit: REUTERS

Beijing: China will monitor travellers entering the country at some border crossings for signs of infection from a new Covid-19 variant, and will allow local governments to reimpose movement curbs on residents to prevent outbreaks after the country reopens its borders Sunday.

A selected group of cities and harbours have been asked to send test samples of infected travellers for genome sequencing at the National Institute for Viral Disease Control and Prevention, according to an updated COVID control plan released on Saturday.

China, which is going through a major wave of infections after dismantling its stringent COVID Zero policy in recent weeks, has yet to report any domestic cases of XBB.1.5, a descendant of the Omicron XBB subvariant that has now become the dominant strain in the US. But health agencies across the world, including the World Health Organisation, have raised concern that China isn’t providing enough genome-sequencing information to come to any definitive conclusions.

The country is set to reopen its borders after reversing its COVID Zero policy in December. The government has reduced quarantine for travellers, who under new guidelines can enter with a negative test result taken within 48 hours of departure.

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China has yet to set a timeline for ending the pre-travel testing requirement and said it will urge custom officials to test goods being exported to ease concerns of transmissions through international shipments, healthcare official Liang Wannian told ambassadors and diplomats from 130 countries at a Friday briefing.

The Ministry of Transport announced on Saturday that it’ll allow crews of international voyage ships to change shifts at ports or land with no need for pre-approval from January 8. It’ll also scrap testing and centralised quarantine requirements upon arrival.

China’s total confirmed death toll from COVID rose to almost 17,500.

Local prevention efforts

The National Health Commission reiterated on Saturday that it will urge local governments to refrain from taking extreme lockdown measures, but mobility curbs can be reimposed to prevent massive outbreaks, it said.

Local governments can order their schools to go online, impose work-from-home rules, cancel unnecessary public events and close entertainment venues in cases of emergency.

The commission pledged increased efforts to monitor conditions in care homes to protect the more vulnerable elderly residents. People aged 60 and over are encouraged to get second booster vaccinations.

At a Saturday media briefing, health officials stressed the need to step up COVID prevention and treatment in rural areas as the Spring Festival approaches. Mi Feng, a spokesperson for the NHC, pledged to boost support for hospitals in rural areas and accelerate vaccination among the elderly in villages.

Almost 99 per cent of township hospitals and health centers in local communities have set up fever clinics now, Nie Chunlei, an NHC official, told the briefing. Authorities have formed a group to coordinate nationwide medical supplies, he said, adding priority will be given to ensure rural hospitals have enough medicine.