Beijing delays reopening; Shanghai enforces mass testing

China is the last major economy still committed to a zero-Covid strategy, stamping out new cases with a combination of targeted lockdowns, mass testing and lengthy quarantines.But virus clusters in recent months have put that approach under strain. The megacity of Shanghai was forced into a gruelling months-long lockdown and in the capital Beijing, schools were shuttered and residents were ordered to work from home.Authorities in Beijing eased many curbs earlier this week, but dozens of infections linked to a bar have led authorities to tighten some restrictions again.Most primary and middle school students will “continue to study online at home” from Monday, city government spokesperson Xu Hejian said at a press briefing on Saturday.The announcement partly walked back a previous decision to send younger pupils back to school in phases, starting next week.Some 115 cases have been linked to the bar cluster so far, municipal health official Liu Xiaofeng said at the briefing.The new outbreak was “at a rapidly developing stage … and at a relatively high risk of spreading”, Liu said.More than 20 million people in Shanghai began a mass testing drive on Saturday that local governments said would take place under temporary lockdown conditions.The move comes less than two weeks after the eastern economic hub lurched out of a harsh lockdown that was punctuated by food shortages and isolated protests from irate residents.Officials have maintained a shifting patchwork of restrictions in Shanghai, wary of a virus resurgence after finally containing the country’s worst outbreak in two years.China recorded 138 domestic infections on Saturday, including 61 in Beijing and 16 in Shanghai, according to the National Health Commission.It comes as a Shanghai hospital is sending Covid-positive kids and parents to different quarantine facilities, an online debate has revealed.Unverified images of children being tended to by workers circulated on the WeChat social media platform, the ABC reports. The Shanghai Public Health Clinical Centre denied the images were genuine but in doing so confirmed the existence of the quarantine site.The centre’s official channel said the photos and videos were not of the “Jinshan infant quarantine facility” but were scenes taken when the hospital was moving its paediatric ward to another building to cope with a rising number of Covid paediatric patients.It comes as Shanghai once again locked down its tens of millions of residents for mass COVID-19 testing over the weekend, just 10 days after lifting its gruelling, two-month lockdown. US, DROPS COVID-19 TESTING FOR TRAVEL The United States will drop its pre-departure Covid-19 international air testing requirements as of Sunday at 12:01am, local time after heavy lobbying from airlines and the travel industry, a senior official in the Biden administration has said.US President Joe Biden said that the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) will no longer require pre-departure Covid-19 testing for travellers coming to the United States after it determined based on the science and data that this requirement is no longer necessary. The CDC will do a reassessment of this decision in 90 days, the official said.Since December, the CDC has required travellers to test negative within a day of boarding flights to the United States, but it does not require testing for land border crossings.The official said, “If there is a need to reinstate a pre-departure testing requirement — including due to a new, concerning variant — CDC will not hesitate to act.”It comes as American Airlines Chief Executive Robert Isom said last week at a conference that the testing requirements were “nonsensical” and were “depressing” leisure and business travel.Airlines have reported that many Americans are not travelling internationally because of concerns they will test positive and be stranded abroad, unallowed to re-enter the US due to the negative test requirement.“We’re really frustrated and this is something that is damaging not only U.S. travel but it just doesn’t make sense,” Mr Isom said last week.In December, the CDC had tightened requirements for international air travellers to get a negative test within one day rather than three days of coming to the United States, which made air travel to the US from long haul countries such as Australia even more difficult.Airlines across Europe and Britain have cancelled thousands of flights due to staff shortages caused by the pandemic.British Airways has cancelled 16,000 flights between March and October, to prevent cancellations at short notice, according to The Sun.Lufthansa has confirmed that 900 short-haul flights will be cancelled from next month.The affected flights will be on Fridays and weekends, with a number of destinations across Europe affected.The airline said: “After a good two years of the pandemic, Lufthansa group airlines report high demand for air travel this summer.“At present, however, the infrastructure has not yet been fully restored. The entire aviation industry, especially in Europe, is currently suffering from bottlenecks and staff shortages.”VIRUS CASES ON THE RISE IN BRITAINAn uptick in Covid hospital admissions in England have experts anticipating a new wave of the novel coronavirus.According to data published on Thursday, hospitalisations flattened but then they have started to slowly climb again, with a 11 per cent jump nationally compared to last week.While the figure of people admitted to hospital with the virus was 577 on Thursday, compared to over 2,000 a day in early January – experts warn any increase is likely to put more pressure on an National Health System already under strain.Meanwhile the Office for National Statistics said on Friday, local time, that Covid-19 infections across the UK have risen for the first time in two months, with almost one million people contracting the virus in the last week – double the week before.It comes as a treatment for people at risk of death from coronavirus has revealed good results in a late-stage trial, its maker AstraZeneca announced on Wednesday.The British pharmaceutical giant, which has already produced a widely used coronavirus vaccine, said the Evusheld jab “provided clinically and statistically significant protection against progression to severe Covid-19 or death”.The phase-three trial was carried out mostly on participants “at high risk of progression to severe Covid-19”, AstraZeneca added in a statement.Evusheld is designed to be a Covid-19 preventative monoclonal antibody treatment for immunocompromised people.HONG KONG’S BUSINESS STATUS UNDERMINED BY PANDEMICHong Kong’s status as an international hub has been “undermined” by strict coronavirus border controls, outgoing leader Carrie Lam admitted Friday, just a day after saying she would not further lift restrictions before departing.The once vibrant Asian business hub is mired in its third year of pandemic isolation as it hews to China’s zero-Covid strategy, which seeks to control outbreaks with lockdowns, social distancing and border controls.Hong Kong last month reopened to vaccinated nonresidents but international arrivals must still undergo seven days of quarantine.“The border control measures have really made people very impatient, and of course, have undermined Hong Kong’s status as a hub,” Lam said in an interview with CNBC.“If you cannot travel freely to other places and into the mainland, how could you be a hub?” Lam is due to step down on June 30 after a five-year term that saw huge democracy protests and Covid-19 outbreaks that left more than 9,000 people dead.On Thursday Lam announced that pandemic restrictions will not be further loosened during her remaining time in office.But in the Friday interview, Lam agreed that a more flexible quarantine policy would bring people back to Hong Kong.“Once we could bring down the hotel quarantine period or, as some have suggested, replace it with home quarantine measures, I’m sure we will be seeing a lot of people coming to Hong Kong,” she told CNBC.Lam said Hong Kong was stuck between China’s zero-Covid approach and foreign countries’ decision to live with the virus.Beijing remains committed to completely quashing all outbreaks and President Xi Jinping reaffirmed the policy on Thursday, saying it must be “unswervingly upheld”, according to state news agency Xinhua.Lam said there was no chance of reopening the border with mainland China in the near future.Hong Kong’s next leader John Lee has said one of his top priorities is to reconnect the city with the mainland, though he gave no specific timetable.Lee previously acknowledged that travel curbs have caused “inconvenience” for international travellers but made no commitment to reduce the quarantine period.

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