New exodus from Beijing begins

New exodus from Beijing begins

Huge spike in train and plane bookings after two weeks of fresh anti-Covid curbs eased

Travellers gather outside the Beijing West Railway Station on Friday. (Reuters Photo)
Travellers gather outside the Beijing West Railway Station on Friday. (Reuters Photo)

BEIJING: People rushed to buy train and plane tickets out of the Chinese capital on Friday after the local government began easing travel restrictions for the first time since a fresh coronavirus outbreak was discovered in mid-June.

Residents from areas of Beijing designated “low-risk” will be allowed to leave the city without having to be tested negative for the coronavirus starting on Saturday, said Pan Xuhong, deputy director of the Beijing Municipal Bureau of Public Security. Strict controls will remain on people from dozens of medium- and high-risk areas.

Within 30 minutes of the announcement, online searches for outbound flights increased five times compared with the same period the day before, and there was a nearly 350% rise in searches for hotel stays in the next two weeks, Beijing Daily reported, citing data from Tongcheng Travel.

Qunar, a Chinese travel platform, said plane and train ticket sales more than doubled within an hour, according to the local newspaper. A similar surge in travel demand occurred in April, when Beijing lowered its emergency response level for the first time since the epidemic first began in January.

Life was just returning to normal in June when residents were again put under severe restrictions after an outbreak was discovered in the city’s biggest wholesale market, prompting local officials to shut schools and lock down some housing compounds.

The change in regulations announced on Friday make it easier for people from low-risk areas to leave the city. However, local governments in other provinces still get to decide whether or not people arriving from Beijing have to be tested or quarantined, and the rules vary across the country.

The cluster of infections in Beijing, which grew to 331 in less than a month, threatened China’s nascent economic recovery and posed a test for its top leaders who had promoted a narrative that they handled the pandemic better than many western nations. The city reported just two new cases on July 2.

Beijing opted not to employ the same citywide lockdown that was used to stem flareups in other parts of China, in order to keep the economy running in the city of more than 20 million where the country’s business and political elite reside.

Instead, authorities relied on an aggressive testing and contact tracing campaign and a “health code” system available through residents’ mobile phones that can show whether someone is at risk of being infected.

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