By Ryan Woo and Bernard Orr
(Reuters) - China's capital Beijing dropped the need for people to show negative COVID tests to enter supermarkets and offices on Tuesday, the latest in an easing of curbs across the country following last month's historic protests.
"Beijing readies itself for life again" read a headline in the government-owned China Daily newspaper, adding that people were "gradually embracing" the slow return to normality.
Further loosening beckons after a string of demonstrations last month that marked the biggest show of public discontent in mainland China since President Xi Jinping took power in 2012.
"This might be the first step towards reopening from this pandemic," Beijing resident Hu Dongxu, 27, told Reuters as he swiped his travel card to enter a train station in the capital, which has also dropped the need for tests to ride the subway.
The shift comes as top officials softened their tone on the severity of the virus, bringing China closer to what other countries have been saying for more than a year as they dropped restrictions and opted to live with the virus.
China may announce 10 new nationwide easing measures as early as Wednesday, two sources with knowledge of the matter told Reuters, as cities across the country have been lifting localised lockdowns.
That has sparked optimism among investors for a broader reopening of the world's second biggest economy that could boost global growth.
But despite reassurances from authorities, commuter traffic in major cities such as Beijing and Chongqing remains at a fraction of previous levels.
Some people remain wary of catching the virus, especially the elderly, many of whom remain unvaccinated, while there is also concern about the strain the loosening could put on China's fragile health system.
China has reported 5,235 COVID-related deaths so far as of Monday, but some experts have warned that toll could rise above 1 million if the exit is too hasty.
Analysts at Nomura estimate that areas now under lockdown equate to around to be 19.3% of China's total GDP, down from 25.1% last Monday.
This marks the first decline in Nomura's closely-watched China COVID lockdown index since the start of October, nearly two months ago.
Meanwhile, officials continue to downplay the dangers posed by the virus.
Tong Zhaohui, director of the Beijing Institute of Respiratory Diseases, said on Monday that the latest Omicron variant of the disease had caused fewer cases of severe illness than the 2009 global influenza outbreak, according to Chinese state television.
China's management of the disease may be downgraded as soon as January, to the less strict Category B from the current top-level Category A of infectious disease, Reuters reported exclusively on Monday.
"The most difficult period has passed," the official Xinhua news agency said in a commentary published late on Monday, citing the weakening pathogenicity of the virus and efforts to vaccinate 90% of the population.
Analysts now predict China may re-open the economy and drop border controls sooner than expected next year, with some seeing it fully open in spring.
But more than half of Chinese say they will put off travel abroad, for periods from several months to more than a year, even if borders re-opened tomorrow, a study showed on Tuesday
Fear of infection with the disease was the top concern of those saying they would postpone travel in a survey of 4,000 consumers in China by consultancy Oliver Wyman.
(Reporting by Ryan Woo and Bernard Orr in Beijing; Writing by John Geddie; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)