The US state department has ordered non-essential workers to leave its consulate in Shanghai after authorities imposed China’s most severe citywide lockdown in two years to rein in a coronavirus outbreak.
The instructions were delivered just days after the department said staff could voluntarily depart and warned US citizens against travelling to China because of “arbitrary enforcement of local laws and Covid-19 related restrictions”.
“Our change in posture reflects our assessment that it is best for our employees and their families to be reduced in number and our operations to be scaled down as we deal with the changing circumstances on the ground,” the state department said on Tuesday.
Shanghai, the centre of China’s worst outbreak since coronavirus first emerged in early 2020, has been subjected to an official citywide lockdown for more than a week, with millions confined to their homes for much longer.
The US warning follows international scrutiny of conditions in the city, where residents have struggled to get enough food through online deliveries and in many cases grouped together to purchase produce from wholesalers.
Shanghai authorities on Monday laid out a blueprint for easing some of the measures by dividing residential compounds into three risk categories and allowing those with no cases in the past fortnight to reopen.
But heavy restrictions remain in place for most residents within the city of 26mn, and similar measures are increasingly being imposed across China. An analysis from Gavekal, a financial research group, found that all but 13 of China’s top 100 cities by gross domestic product had imposed some level of quarantine restriction. Official data state that nearly 500,000 people are under medical observation.
The measures have added to pressure on China’s economy and weighed on logistics and transport. On Monday, Premier Li Keqiang warned about risks to economic growth for the third time in a week.
There were 23,342 new Covid cases reported in Shanghai on Monday, according to data released on Tuesday, a fall compared with more than 26,000 on Sunday.
Shanghai has conducted various rounds of mass testing since it unveiled a two-stage lockdown in late March, which was expanded to encompass the entire city at once.
The city’s handling of the outbreak is a test case of China’s commitment to its zero-Covid strategy, which has largely kept cases under control for two years but officials are now struggling to contain the highly infectious Omicron variant.
Authorities have encouraged big cities to act quickly to stem new cases. The southern city of Guangzhou, one of the biggest manufacturing centres in China, reported 27 cases on Monday and began sealing itself off as it prepared for mass testing.
The strict measures in Shanghai have raised concerns over the separation of children and parents if either tested positive owing to a policy of housing asymptomatic cases at quarantine centres. Last week, the regulations were changed to allow parents to quarantine with their children irrespective of test results.
In response to the US state department’s travel advisory last week, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said: “We express strong dissatisfaction and firm opposition to the groundless accusations against China’s pandemic prevention policy from the US in its statement, and have lodged solemn representations.”