China eases Covid curbs to streamline supply chains

Beijing tackles medical supply issues and price gouging amid concerns over an increase in infections

Queues have formed at pharmacies in Chinese cities including Beijing as people look to buy cough medicine, flu drugs and masks. AP
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China said on Saturday that it would stop carrying out Covid-19 checks on lorry drivers and ship crew transporting goods domestically, removing a key bottleneck from its supply chain network as the country eases its zero-Covid policy.

The country has started to reopen its economy, loosening key parts of its Covid policy in a shift that has been welcomed by the public, but also raised concerns of a surge in infections.

With Beijing requiring less testing and allowing those with mild or no symptoms to isolate at home, the focus has shifted to ensuring there are adequate provisions of medicine and shoring up the country's health care system.

Three years after the coronavirus pandemic began, Chinese citizens were eager for Beijing to start to align with the rest of the world, which has largely opened up in an effort to live with Covid.

After widespread protests, the authorities have changed course.

This year, amid mass lockdowns, much of China's supply chain network was hit by requirements for those involved in goods transportation to show negative Covid test results or health codes at check points.

The decision to remove those curbs is aimed at ensuring the smooth supply of medicine and healthcare supplies such as antigen kits, the authorities said.

"No efforts should be spared to ensure smooth delivery of medical supplies," China's Transport Ministry said in a notice.

Long queues have formed at pharmacies in many Chinese cities as people buy cough medicine, flu drugs and masks.

The state market regulator at the weekend warned against price gouging in anti-Covid products.

The State Administration for Market Regulation published guidelines to regulate the online sale of drugs, masks, antigen testing reagents and food.

Internet companies, in particular, should not "profiteer from the pandemic", the administration said.

In another shift, China agreed to let Germany provide BioNTech's Covid vaccine to German citizens in the country, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said on Friday.

Beijing had until now insisted on only administering domestically produced vaccines.

China's easing of Covid restrictions has unnerved companies, many of which had been frustrated by the policy but adapted to the inconveniences.

Sources at two western car makers with factories in China said on Friday that they were monitoring the situation carefully.

One expressed concern that the virus would spread quickly as restrictions ease, increasing the likelihood of staff sickness and potentially affecting production.

Another said the situation was unpredictable, with the relief this week at reopening potentially turning out to be short-lived.

But others have described the reopening as an opportunity to be seized, with major coastal provinces such as Guangdong and Hainan busily arranging trips overseas to make up for trade opportunities lost because of strict Covid border controls.

The city of Dongguan in China's manufacturing centre of southern Guangdong province said it held a conference to encourage businesses to go out, "explore markets and grab orders".

Dongguan's commerce bureau said 92 representatives from 52 companies in the city have applied to participate in a trade expo in the UAE this month.

The government is also arranging trips to trade fairs and exhibitions in places including Hong Kong, Japan and the US, the bureau said.

China, which has all but shut its borders to international trips and curbed non-essential travel by citizens for nearly three years, shortened the quarantine period by two days for inbound travellers last month.

Wednesday's measures did not mention overseas travel.

Mixed feelings among the public

Feelings were mixed on the streets of China's largest cities, Beijing and Shanghai.

"Business has not picked up since the measures were eased. People are cautious. I'd say business is down about 60 per cent from one and a half weeks ago," said Chen Zhengyan, who owns a hair salon in Chaoyang, Beijing's largest district.

He said that with fewer customers, he had only asked half of his staff to come in.

In Shanghai, which has removed several requirements, including the need for a negative test result to enter restaurants, people ventured out for errands or strolls along popular shopping streets and tourist spots.

"I am happy that Shanghai is finally coming back to life, but we still need to be cautious about our health. We should wear masks and protect ourselves carefully," one resident said.

China reported 13,585 new locally transmitted Covid cases for Friday, of which 3,034 were symptomatic and 10,551 were asymptomatic.

This was down from 16,592 the previous day and far lower from highs hit this month, amid less testing.

Updated: December 10, 2022, 12:11 PM