China Says Citizens Can Travel. The World Isn’t Quite Ready.

Tingshu Wang/Reuters
Tingshu Wang/Reuters

ROME—For the first time in nearly three years, flights from mainland China are back in the air. But governments in a number of destination countries haven’t exactly rolled out the red carpet.

In Italy, the first country in the EU to impose new restrictions on travel from China since early 2020, every passenger on all flights coming from China—both Chinese nationals and other foreign nations—must undergo an antigen test before they leave the airport.

More than half of the passengers on one flight into Milan that arrived on Dec. 26 tested positive for COVID, Italian officials said. Of those, the primary variant found in the samples sequenced was Omicron, according to Italy’s new prime minister Giorgia Meloni, who said the news was “comforting.” Those who test positive will be told to isolate, but will not be provided state-funded accommodation to do so.

Italy has urged the greater European Union to adopt a similar stance, insisting that new variants could spread quickly. “Italy cannot be the only country to carry out anti-COVID checks at airports for those arriving from China,” Italian Transport Minister Matteo Salvini tweeted Thursday. The subject was on the agenda for a Thursday meeting in Brussels, but several countries, including France, have said they won’t sign on to new restrictions.

The United States, instead, is requiring a negative COVID test within two days of departure, a rule that applies even to those flying through Vancouver, Toronto, and Seoul. Japan is also requiring a negative result before departure, and has vowed to limit airlines that are adding new routes to China.

The restrictions are being added due to what the international community calls a “lack of transparency” from Beijing. Reports of crematoriums and hospitals filling up across China are in stark contrast to the official line coming from the government, which recently announced three new COVID deaths.

Malaysia, India, and Taiwan have also promised to beef up contact tracing and may require additional testing as well.

The United Kingdom and Australia are holding out, and are not planning any new restrictions at the moment.

China, which abruptly ended harsh zero-COVID restrictions, will be lifting quarantine for international arrivals on Jan. 8, which coincides with the moment many people will be arriving for New Year celebrations on Jan. 22.

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