Chinese authorities said Tuesday they will end a two-month lockdown of most of coronavirus-hit Hubei province at midnight, as domestic cases of what has become a global pandemic subside.
People with a clean bill of health will be allowed to leave, the provincial government said, easing restrictions on movement that were unprecedented in scale.
The city of Wuhan, where the virus was first detected in December, is to remain locked down until April 8.
China barred people from leaving or entering Wuhan beginning on January 23 in a surprise middle-of-the-night announcement and expanded that to most of the province in succeeding days.
Trains and flights were cancelled and checkpoints set up on roads into the central province.
The drastic steps came as the coronavirus began spreading to the rest of China and overseas during the Lunar New Year holiday, when millions of Chinese travel.
The virus raged for weeks in Wuhan, the provincial capital, and surrounding cities.
Hospitals overflowed and temporary ones were hastily set up to try to isolate the growing number of infected patients. More than 2,500 people have died in Wuhan out of 3,270 nationwide.
The outbreak has since been brought under control, and Hubei has seen almost no new infections for more than a week.
The move to end the lockdown showed the authorities’ apparent faith in the success of the drastic measures, as they try to kick start the world’s second-largest economy and put money in the pockets of workers, many of whom have gone weeks without pay.
It remained unclear, however, which cities and provinces, including Beijing, the capital, would allow people from Hubei to enter their jurisdictions.
About 120,000 migrant workers, including many who had made the traditional trip home to Hubei for Lunar New Year, have already been allowed to leave in recent days on special buses and trains, according to Chinese media reports.
The reports said manufacturing centres such as Guangdong and Zhejiang province are open to people from Hubei.
Outside of Hubei, the government says work has restarted on about 90% of major public construction projects across the country.
While many migrant workers remain trapped by travel restrictions and quarantines, factories are operating again, though not at full capacity.
In the Beijing area, the city zoo and parts of the Great Wall reopened this week, though they required advance reservations to limit the number of visitors. Some restaurants were reopening for business, some on the condition that customers do not sit facing each other.
At the Xibei restaurant inside a mall in eastern Beijing’s Shuangjing neighbourhood, a line formed at about 11am Tuesday for the lunch opening, although managers said they expected to serve only around 140 customers, down from the usual daily number of 900 before the virus outbreak.
Half of the establishment’s 20 tables had “closed” signs on them to help keep a distance between customers, while food delivery workers rushed in and out with orders of grilled beef and lamb, noodles, pancakes and other northern Chinese dishes.
Officials have turned their attention to the threat of the virus entering from abroad, with almost all new cases being recorded among people arriving from overseas.
China’s National Health Commission on Tuesday reported 78 new coronavirus cases, among which 74 were imported.
Starting Wednesday, Beijing will require everyone arriving from overseas to be tested for the coronavirus on top of being quarantined for 14 days.
In a notice published online, city authorities said those who have entered the city within the last 14 days will also undergo the mandatory testing.
“Currently, the imported risk from the epidemic’s rapid spread overseas continues to rise,” the Beijing notice said.
The heightened measures, which apply regardless of one’s final destination, follow a previous order that all overseas arrivals quarantine themselves at designated hotels at their own expense unless they live alone.