China reports zero local symptomatic Covid cases for first time since July

China’s health authority has reported no new locally transmitted symptomatic Covid cases for the first time since the Delta variant outbreak began in July.

While it is unclear whether the figure will remain at zero in the weeks to come, experts said it was yet another sign that Beijing’s “zero tolerance” approach was unlikely to be changed.

More than 1,200 people have been confirmed infected in an outbreak that officials said was mainly driven by the highly transmissible Delta variant, which was brought in from abroad and caused a cluster in late July in the eastern city of Nanjing.

The latest round of outbreak prompted nationwide alarm, with politicians and medical professionals appearing on local and national media urging people to be on high alert.

Tough measures were quickly deployed. They included localised lockdowns, strict quarantine and mass testing. Early this month, for example, authorities ordered all 11 million residents of Wuhan – where Covid-19 was first reported in late 2019 – to be tested for the virus, after new cases emerged in the city for the first time in more than a year.

On Saturday, the authorities in Shanghai, a vital transportation hub, quarantined hundreds of people in an attempt to halt a new Covid-19 outbreak in the city, after infections were detected in cargo workers at the airport.

Officials were also using big data to “quickly identify risk areas”, isolating high-risk groups in centralised zones, and sharing information quickly between regions, Gao Guangming of the National Health Commission told a recent press conference.

Dozens of officials have been punished for mishandling local outbreaks. Early this month, Fu Guirong, the director of the local health commission in Zhengzhou, central Henan province, was sacked after the city reported a few positive cases. Last year, Fu was given a national award for her contribution to the country’s antivirus effort.

With zero newly reported symptomatic cases on Monday, Chinese experts said that recent measures seemed to be paying off, despite the high costs. According to the official tally, new daily local cases fell to the single-digit level last week, after peaking in early August.

It is difficult to independently verify the official figures, but since the weekend, authorities have lifted lockdowns in a few areas in Beijing, as well as in Wuhan and Jingmen in central Hubei province, after these cities had sealed up some areas to contain the virus. Sichuan has allowed travel agencies to resume tours to outside the province, barring places still deemed of risk.

Economists have said they expect to see China’s measures cutting into growth in the world’s second-biggest economy in the months to come.

“Although new cases have dropped and more people have been vaccinated, we think that some Covid-related restrictions will likely linger for longer, weighing on consumption and sentiment, especially in services areas and as we head toward the winter,” wrote UBS investment bank in a research note last week.

The number of scheduled domestic flights for August has fallen 19% from a year earlier, according to global aviation data company Cirium, after the latest outbreak dented demand for travel and authorities allowed bookings to be cancelled free of charge.

The latest outbreak also led to a nationwide debate over whether China should begin to learn to live with the virus, after countries such as Britain and Singapore officially changed their public messaging.

After a short debate in the past few weeks, experts now do not expect China to alter its zero-tolerance playbook in the near future.

“Although China’s current [Covid containment] policy is characterised by a high degree of disruption as well as cost, a suite of effective measures has been established, which I don’t think will be abandoned easily,” said Zhengming Chen, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Oxford.

“Ordinary people are basically used to the measures without having too many complaints. And the effectiveness [of those measures] is discernible – case numbers recently have significantly declined,” Zhengming told Reuters news agency, though he said he doubted whether China could afford to impose such measures in the long run.

On Monday, the National Health Commission reported a total of 21 new confirmed cases for 22 August, including new infections detected among travellers arriving in mainland China, down from 32 a day earlier.

Meanwhile, China reported 16 new asymptomatic coronavirus cases, which it does not classify as confirmed infections until they show signs of infection such as a fever. That is down from 19 a day earlier. The new asymptomatic cases were all imported.

Mainland China as of 22 August has recorded a total of 94,652 confirmed cases, with an official death toll of 4,636, unchanged since late January.

Additional reporting by Reuters and AFP news agencies