The World Health Organisation again urged China’s health officials to regularly share specific, real-time information on the country’s Covid surge, as the UK joined other countries in bringing in travel restrictions, citing a lack of data as the reason.
WHO Covid experts met Chinese officials on Friday and “again stressed the importance of transparency and regular sharing of data to formulate accurate risk assessments and to inform effective response”, said the WHO chief, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
In particular, WHO requested more genetic sequencing data, data on hospitalisations, intensive care unit admissions and deaths – and data on vaccinations delivered and vaccination status, especially in vulnerable people and those over 60 years old.
The WHO invited Chinese scientists to present detailed data on viral sequencing at a WHO technical meeting due to be held on 3 January.
China’s National Health Commission said of the meeting only that its health officials had exchanged views with the WHO and that more technical exchanges would be held.
A surge in Covid infections across China and doubts about its official data have prompted the return of health checks across Europe and around the world in the wake of the rapid end to Xi Jinping’s zero-Covid strategy.
China is set to significantly loosen its travel restrictions on inbound and outbound travel from 8 January, and travel for lunar new year later that is expected to see hundreds of millions of Chinese workers return to regional home towns, with many expected to take the disease with them to areas that have fewer medical facilities.
Chinese state media reported that Shanghai’s major hospitals had seen the number of emergency patients double in the past few days, sparking calls for non-urgent patients to be moved to smaller hospitals.
At the city’s Ruijin hospital, the number of visits to emergency reached 1,500 a day, with Covid patients accounting for 80% of those visits, the state-backed Global Times reported on Friday.
The UK became the latest country to bring in restrictions in a move designed to align with US policy. The decision was taken because of what the government believes is a lack of reliable data from China.
The US attributed its recent change to policy to the lack of information on Covid variants and concerns that the increased cases in China could result in the development of new variants.
British MP Tobias Ellwood, the chair of the Commons defence select committee, suggested the government’s emergency response committee – known as Cobra – should have been convened amid concerns about the reliability of China’s data.
“We should be taking our own precautionary measures … we do not know what variants of Covid have developed in China in the three years of their lockdown,” he told LBC radio. “Any dithering leaves us as a hostage to fortune … The later you leave any action, the less impact it will have.”
Singapore, a key travel hub, said on Friday that it would take a “cautious” approach to increasing capacity as Chinese foreign travel resumed. The emergence of new and more dangerous variants, and the potential burden on Singapore’s health system of sick travellers, were its main concerns, its health ministry said.
Germany’s health minister, Karl Lauterbach, said it was “not yet necessary” to bring back mandatory testing for travellers coming into the borderless Schengen area from China via Germany but that data on Covid variants provided by Beijing was not sufficiently reliable. “Therefore we very much have to rely on doing that ourselves,” for example by carefully looking at individual flights, he said.
Chinese state media has called the return of testing requirements for travellers “discriminatory” and politically motivated in an attempt to undermine China’s reopening.
Senior Covid official Liang Wannian said on Thursday that China played an active role in global pathogen monitoring and would alert the WHO “in a timely manner when a new variant is discovered or when the mutation causes a change in virulence or transmissibility of the virus”, the Global Times reported.