China’s wave of Covid is “coming to an end”, health officials have claimed, saying there had been no sign of a new surge from the lunar new year holiday period, despite a big increase in travel compared to last year.
Government figures released on Tuesday showed big rises in tourism and hospitality activity compared to the same time last year. Factory activity has also rebounded for the first time in four months, an early sign of economic return after the country reported its slowest growth in about half a century during strict Covid controls.
After abruptly lifting zero-Covid restrictions in early December, China was swamped by a wave of Covid cases. Available data on admissions to hospitals and fever clinics released in recent weeks showed an apparent peak in infections around early January.
There were concerns that the mass travel of hundreds of millions of people for the lunar new year period could further spread infections.
On Tuesday, the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) claimed however, “there has not been an obvious rebound in Covid cases”.
“In this time, no new variant has been discovered, and the country’s current wave is coming to an end.”
Figures from the ministry of transport showed travel in the first 22 days of this year’s travel period was 75.8% higher than in 2022, although it was still only around half the number of trips made during the last pre-pandemic lunar new year in 2019.
Officials had predicted that travel would increase by 99.5% year-on-year over the whole 40 days, and reach 70.3% of pre-pandemic levels, analysis firm Trivium said.
In Dali, a popular holiday destination in Yunnan, hostel owner Fengyu said she was booked out for the holiday period.
“It feels a bit sudden because I have been lying flat for three years and suddenly there are so many customers, which makes me think about how can I provide the best service, especially when my facilities are now dusty after three years and my labels and signs have not yet been polished,” she told the Guardian.
“So we are really hurry-scurry and are short of staff.”
Fengyu said the mood among the guests was buoyant, and more understanding after three difficult years.
“The pandemic made people reflect on themselves and look back. They are more likely to treat us as equals, and they generally seemed to be happy and not so picky,” she said. “My employees are also very happy after seeing so many people coming here from everywhere with joy on their faces.”
Other economic figures were mixed, as China grapples with the lingering effects of zero-Covid on its economy. The most positive results were in the tourism and hospitality sectors, which reached almost 81% of pre-pandemic levels.
Domestic tourism trips increased to 88.6% of 2019’s level, the ministry of culture and tourism said, but revenue from consumption-related industries grew by just 12.2% in the first week of the holiday period.
The official manufacturing purchasing managers’ index (PMI) stood at 50.1, compared with a reading of 47.0 in December, the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) said on Tuesday. The 50-point mark separates contraction from growth.
The IMF also revised China’s growth outlook sharply higher for 2023, to 5.2% from 4.4% in the October forecast after zero-Covid lockdown policies in 2022 slashed the country’s growth rate to 3.0%.
The lunar new year period – which last about 40 days – has been called the largest at of human migration in the world, with hundreds of millions of people traveling across China and the region, including domestic migrant workers returning to home villages and towns to reunite with family. For many, it is the only chance they can go home each year, but the pandemic had prevented many from doing so in recent years.
Even after restrictions were lifted this year, people were urged to reconsider visiting elderly relatives of those relatives had not yet been infected.
The true scale of infections and deaths – particularly outside cities – has not been clear. Estimates of deaths range from about 80,000 – the official figure based on cases in hospitals – to more than a million according to global health experts.
Xiaoqian Zhu contributed research to this article