China threatens ‘reciprocal’ action against countries imposing COVID tests on travellers

London: China has threatened “reciprocity” against countries demanding travellers from its shores provide negative COVID tests before boarding flights. It comes as the UK government admitted the measure was only in place because Beijing was not sharing COVID data.

Australia joined the United States, the UK, France, Italy, Spain, Canada in demanding all travellers present a negative test of COVID taken no more than 48 hours before departure. Travellers on flights from mainland China, Hong Kong and Macau into Australia will have to take a supervised, lesser-accurate rapid test and present the paperwork to the airline staff before boarding. The measure begins at 12.01am on January 5.

Masked commuters head to work during the morning rush hour in Beijing in December 2022.Credit:AP

The measure has incensed China, which is preparing to welcome back international visitors when it scraps its strict mandatory quarantine arrangements that have been in place as part of President Xi Jinping’s zero-COVID strategy.

“We firmly reject using COVID measures for political purposes and will take corresponding measures in response to varying situations via the principle of reciprocity,” China’s foreign ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning said.

It was unclear what any reciprocal measure would entail as China already requires a negative PCR test for anyone crossing its borders.

The UK’s Home Secretary Mark Harper said the country’s health officials would also be randomly testing arrivals on a voluntary basis but anyone who tested positive would not be required to quarantine, noting that one in 45 people in the UK are currently infected with the virus.

Officials have advised anyone who tests positive to stay at home but added this had not been a legal requirement in the UK for almost a year.

Harper said the surveillance testing was only happening because Beijing was not sharing health data with the international community.

“This is about a country, China, which isn’t sharing the health data with the global health system that we expect everybody to do,” Harper, who as a backbencher was a leading critic of COVID lockdowns and restrictions during the pandemic, told radio LB.

“So that’s why we’ve put this temporary, precautionary measure in place as China opens up its borders.

“We’d rather they shared the data, if they did that we wouldn’t have to do this surveillance testing in the first place,” Harper said.

Professor Chris Whitty, the UK’s chief medical officer is reported to have advised the government that there was no clear evidence of any significant benefits to the British public if the tests were imposed.

This recommendation is similar to the advice Australia’s Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly made to the government that there was no public health rationale for imposing pre-departure tests.

The Australian government has pointed to the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) criticism of China for not sharing enough information about its COVID outbreak which has infected millions since Xi dropped his strict virus control measures.

Australia’s Health Minister Mark Butler said there is so far no evidence of any concerning strain and that one believed to be behind the huge wave of cases in China is a sub-variant of the Omicron strain that has already been circulating in Australia for months.

Professor Susan Hopkins the UK’s Health and Security Agency’s Chief Medical Adviser said that the surge in cases in China was driven by low immunity and low vaccination rates.

Last week the head of the WHO, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said it was “understandable” that countries were acting in ways “that they believe may protect their populations” in light of the absence of information coming out of China.

Chinese officials held a technical meeting with the WHO and the foreign ministry insisted it had always shared COVID data with the world in a “transparent” manner.

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