Chinese hospitals struggle to cope as Covid spread sparks testing measures from Italy and others

Italy has imposed new Covid-19 testing restrictions on travellers from China, where infections are surging and hospitals are struggling to cope.

Milan's main airport, Malpensa, had already started testing passengers arriving from Beijing and Shanghai – with results on one day showing almost one in two passengers was infected. “The measure is essential to ensure surveillance and detection of possible variants of the virus in order to protect the Italian population”, health minister Orazio Schillaci said, announcing mandatory testing for all passengers.

On the first flight to Malpensa that tested passengers from China on 26 December, 35 out of 62 passengers were Covid positive, while 62 were positive out of 120 on the second, Lombardy’s health chief Guido Bertolaso said.

The minister did not say what measures would be imposed on travellers testing positive, but the local health chiefs in the Lombardy region around Milan and the Lazio region around Rome said they would have to quarantine in buildings set aside by the local health authorities.

Many of China’s south Asian neighbours – Japan, Taiwan, Malaysia and India – are escalating the security protocols for Chinese travellers, asking them to present negative Covid tests on arrivals. Officials in the Philippines said the country should be “very cautious” about receiving travellers from China.

The US is also looking to impose new Covid measures on Chinese travellers coming from Beijing amid concerns about the accuracy of the data around the infection rate in China.

Several ICU facilities in hotspot provinces across China are being overwhelmed by large caseloads. Healthcare workers in Huaxi hospital in the city of Chengdu said they have been extremely busy looking after infected patients.

“I’ve been doing this job for 30 years and this is the busiest I have ever known it,” one ambulance driver outside the hospital told Reuters on the condition of anonymity.

“Almost all of the patients have Covid,” one emergency department pharmacy staff member said.

Authorities in Beijing reported three new Covid-related deaths on Tuesday, up from one on Monday –a rise which appears inconsistent with the situation at most funeral parlours. Images on social media have shown dead bodies packed in body bags and piling up in mortuaries.

The Xi Jinping administration suddenly reversed its “zero-Covid” policy in recent weeks and the speed of the move has hit a fragile healthcare system. Most patients have included the elderly and the critically ill with underlying diseases, said Zhang Yuhua, an official at the Beijing Chaoyang hospital. The number of patients receiving emergency care has soared almost five times from roughly 100 before restrictions started to ease to at least 450-500 per day now, she said.

Wang Wenbin, China’s foreign ministry spokesperson has accused Western countries of “hyping up” and “distorting China’s Covid policy adjustments”.

He said China believed all countries’ Covid responses should be “science-based and proportionate”, and should “not affect normal people-to-people exchange”. Mr Wang called for “joint efforts to ensure safe cross-border travel, maintain stability of global industrial supply chains and promote economic recovery and growth”.

China is currently on course for a complete re-opening of its economy next year – and will drop a requirement for inbound travellers to take Covid PCR tests starting from 8 January 2023, customs authorities said on Wednesday.

Meanwhile, Hong Kong will cancel its Covid rules from Thursday, city leader John Lee said, meaning that arrivals will no longer need to do mandatory PCR tests while the city's vaccine pass would also be scrapped. Although the wearing of masks will still remains compulsory, Mr Lee said.

"The city has reached a relatively high vaccination rate which builds an anti-epidemic barrier... Hong Kong has a sufficient amount of medicine to fight Covid, and healthcare workers have gained rich experience in facing the pandemic," he added.

Mr Lee said his government is aiming to reopen the borders with mainland China by 15 January and was working with authorities over the border to ensure an orderly re-opening.