SHANGHAI (Reuters) -China will keep fine-tuning its steps to control COVID-19 as it tries to minimise infections and serious cases, officials said on Saturday, a day after surprise announcements to lessen the impact of a strict zero-COVID policy.
The authorities announced the moves, cheered by financial markets, despite a surge infections to their highest since late April, according to data released on Saturday, with outbreaks in key cities including Beijing, Guangzhou and Chongqing.
Friday's easing measures included shorter quarantines for inbound travellers and those in close contact with infected people. Quarantines were cut by two days to eight, with the first five spent in a centralised facility.
China's stringent measures have dragged on the world's second-largest economy, disrupting industrial activity and frustrating residents with lockdowns, quarantines, frequent testing and travel interruptions.
"As new virus variants keep coming, while our knowledge of the disease deepens and the epidemic situation changes both at home and abroad, we don't rule out the possibility to further optimise and adjust our quarantine measures," Wang Liping, a researcher at the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, told a Saturday news briefing in Beijing.
China will stop trying to identify "secondary" contacts, a practice that swept up many urban residents in contact-tracing efforts after a case was found, while still identifying close contacts, officials said on Friday.
The measures will ease bottlenecks including a shortage of quarantine rooms and contact-tracing workers, Lei Haichao, deputy director of the National Health Commission (NHC), told the news briefing.
'PREPARING FOR EXIT'
"A complete reopening is still unrealistic at the moment," said Jiang Shuai, a 27-year-old finance professional in Beijing. "But we can expect that things will be better in the future, in terms of vaccination and treatment of COVID-19."
China will stick with a prevention-oriented approach to achieve "as few infections as possible, as few serious, critical cases as possible," said Lei, noting that China has far fewer hospital beds per capita than developed countries.
The NHC reported 11,950 new COVID infections for Friday, low by global standards but up from 10,729 cases a day earlier.
Goldman Sachs said it continued to see downside risks to China's near-term economic growth as several big cities report rising case numbers, calling the steps "marginal in terms of economic impact".
"However, the signal that the top leadership is preparing for an exit from three years of zero-COVID policy at some point next year," the investment bank said in a note on Friday, predicting the most likely period was after March parliamentary gatherings.
Guangzhou, a southern metropolis of nearly 19 million people that has put a handful of districts under lockdown, reported 3,180 locally transmitted infections for Friday, up from 2,583 a day earlier.
Beijing reported 68 symptomatic and 48 asymptomatic cases, versus 64 symptomatic and 54 asymptomatic ones the previous day, local government data showed.
Some parts of China's capital are urging daily testing, while business disruptions continue. The high-end SKP shopping mall in the sprawling Chaoyang district said it was closed on Saturday for COVID control and prevention measures.
(Reporting by Beijing and Shanghai Newsrooms; Editing by William Mallard and Clarence Fernandez)