November 14, 2022 - 7:30am

At the end of last week the Standing Committee of the Politburo of the Chinese Communist Party affirmed 20 amendments to the “Zero Covid” policy that has dominated life in the country for over two years. Although the headline statements preserve the rhetoric of Zero Covid (and Bill Hayton is right to be sceptical in his UnHerd piece that they will drop it completely) the announcement added up to a fundamental change in approach.

Amendment 2, for example — no longer tracking close contacts of close contacts of an infected person — may not sound like a big step, but it will greatly reduce the number of people being isolated and removed to quarantine facilities who aren’t even infected. Another amendment allowing home quarantine even in high-risk areas will further reduce the numbers in those facilities, which have been one of the more visibly extreme features of the Chinese response. (See our interview with an intern at a Beijing Covid camp from April.)

Even more significant is the apparent U-turn against a “one size fits all” approach — arguably the defining characteristic of a Zero Covid strategy which attempts to keep out the virus in all populations. In the new language you can almost hear echoes of the famous “Great Barrington Declaration” of October 2020, in which a group of medics proposed a shift in policy towards “focused protection” of more vulnerable groups instead.

The new statement commits the Chinese government to researching and identifying “the population of elderly, patients with underlying diseases, pregnant women, and other vulnerable groups, and formulating health and safety protection plans for them” as well as “optimizing the management of places where vulnerable groups are concentrated, such as nursing homes”. The Great Barrington Declaration mentioned careful management of nursing homes as a particular example of “focused protection”.

Amendment 16 specifically censures local government agencies for being heavy-handed in implementing “one size fits all” policies:

[We shall] increase efforts to correct “one size fits all” approaches: local party committees and governments must strictly implement the national unified prevention and control policy. It is strictly forbidden to close schools and classes, stop work and production, restrict traffic without approval, introduce unapproved lockdowns or remain in lockdowns for overly long periods. Other kinds of exaggerated behaviours such as random suspension of diagnosis and medical treatments will result in increased notification and public exposure, leading to severe punishment for those local authorities that cause serious consequences.
- National Health Commission of the People's Republic of China

This is the central Chinese government promising to take action on local government agencies for being too draconian in their Covid policy. It is quite a shift, and confirms how unpopular the Zero Covid society has become after more than two years.

In effect, the dialling down of restrictions and embracing of a more targeted approach are a concession, two years too late, that a virus such as Covid cannot be kept at zero, no matter how totalitarian the state and how coercive the policies. Of course, all this comes too late for the hundreds of millions of Chinese citizens who have had to live with the consequences of such a misguided ambition.

is the Editor-in-Chief & CEO of UnHerd. He was previously Editor-in-Chief of YouGov, and founder of PoliticsHome.