China has announced plans to scrap its primary Covid tracking app in the latest rollback of pandemic control measures, just days after abruptly abandoning its long-running zero-Covid policy.
It came as health authorities warned of widespread infections on the horizon, and redeployed hundreds of thousands of doctors and nurses to intensive care units in preparation for an Omicron surge through the population of 1.4 billion people.
On Tuesday the government-run “communications itinerary card” will be retired, according to an official announcement on Monday. The app tracked people’s movements using mobile phone signals, identifying those who had been in high-risk areas in order to control their travel to other areas.
The national app was a central pillar of the technological infrastructure that guided the government’s Covid response. A plethora of local and provincial apps used health data which often could not be shared with other regions.
Online, residents shared screenshots of their final logins and farewelled the app. “Goodbye itinerary card, concerts here I come,” wrote one person. “The past few years we have witnessed ‘history’ one time after another, and I hope that there will never be a day when it will be used again,” wrote another.
Some expressed concern about the vast amounts of personal data collected by the app and others like it. “I hope there will be mechanisms and measures to log out and delete this,” said one.
The app is the latest tenet of China’s zero-Covid policy to be dismantled. Over the past week testing requirements have been greatly reduced, domestic travel restrictions lifted, and infected people allowed to quarantine at home instead of being sent to specialised facilities.
Beijing authorities said fever clinics at hospitals in the city had received more than 22,000 patients on Sunday, 16 times the number a week ago.
“The current trend of the rapid spread of the epidemic in Beijing still exists,” Li Ang, a spokesperson for the city’s health commission, said at a briefing on Monday. “The number of fever clinic visits and flu-like cases increased significantly, and the number of … emergency calls increased sharply.”
In recent weeks, local cases have been trending lower since a late November peak of 40,052, official figures show. Sunday’s tally of 8,626 was down from 10,597 new cases the previous day. However, since mandatory testing was drastically scaled back and test stations dismantled, the official case numbers are no longer considered a reliable measurement. Videos showed long queues in Shanghai at the few remaining testing sites left open for people working in vulnerable sectors.
On Sunday China’s top disease expert warned of a coming surge in cases. Zhong Nanshan said the Omicron variant was “spreading rapidly”, and that one person could infect 22 others.
Authorities are preparing for almost 300,000 doctors and nurses to beredeployed to intensive care units across the country. China’s health system is concentrated in major cities and along the wealthier east coast. The government has faced criticism for not using the zero-Covid period to build its capacity. Nationally it has just one intensive care bed per 10,000 residents, far below other nations in the region. 3.6
With low vaccination rates among the vulnerable elderly demographics, the rapid change of rules has caused some fear and alarm among the population. There were also widespread reports of shortages of medication and rapid tests in pharmacies and online.
Ahead of January’s lunar new year – the country’s busiest travel period – Zhong urged people to get booster shots.
“It is highly unlikely that people will be restricted from travelling home for lunar new year celebrations in 2023, but it is still important to step up preparations,” he said, according to state media.
Online there was concern among students who are supposed to sit for a major exam in late December. The postgraduate admissions test requires the expected 5 million participants to travel across the country and gather in large groups.
In his interview, Zhong optimistically appeared to suggest a return to pre-pandemic life in China within months.
“I was asked when our lives can return to where we were in 2019. My view is that in the first half of next year after March,” he said, according to the South China Morning Post.
“Although I can’t guarantee it, the trend says it should be around that time.”
China’s restrictions for virus containment and control was initially successful against earlier variants of the disease and allowed most Chinese people to live a largely normal life for much of the last three years. But the system was overwhelmed by the increased transmissibility of later variants like Omicron. The government faced unprecedented protests last month against arduous and frequent lockdowns, as well as other restrictions that were having a major social and economic effects.
Seemingly in response, many of those restrictions have been abruptly shelved. Videos spread on social media showed abandoned quarantine centres and testing sites, littered with the refuse of the former policy. State media and health messaging has pivoted to emphasising the low severity of Omicron, and urging individual responsibility. One official video which shows people removing their face masks with apparent relief was criticised over its suggestion to ease mask wearing just as Covid begins to spread uncontrolled.
Additional reporting by Chi Hui Lin