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People walk outside Beijing Railway Station as the travel rush starts ahead of the Lunar New Year, in Beijing, China, on Jan. 17.CARLOS GARCIA RAWLINS/Reuters

Every year, hundreds of millions of people across China take part in the world’s largest annual human migration. For two weeks in the run-up to the Lunar New Year, people pour out of the big cities aboard planes and high-speed trains and head back to their hometowns to take part in traditional family gatherings.

According to the Ministry of Transport, more than 1.18 billion trips are expected this holiday travel period, which began Monday. But while the government is doing all it can to facilitate travel for what is known as the Spring Festival in mainland China, officials are also nervous all those trips could lead to new COVID-19 outbreaks.

On Wednesday, a speech by one official in Henan province went viral after he warned against “malicious homecomings,” raising the spectre of potential punishment for travellers, in addition to the intense testing and quarantines that are currently the norm in China.

While the number of confirmed cases is negligible compared with many countries in the West – just 73 new infections Wednesday – China is dealing with its worst pandemic wave since early 2020. Dozens of cities across the country are in lockdown, with tens of millions being tested to try to contain outbreaks of the Delta and Omicron variants, in line with China’s strict zero-COVID protocols.

Speaking at a news conference Saturday, Mi Feng, a spokesman for the National Health Commission, warned that the “epidemic prevention and control situation is grim.”

Even areas that have seen no outbreaks “must not relax,” Mr. Mi said, particularly over the Spring Festival travel period. At the same event, NHC inspector He Qinghua said that “once an epidemic is found, it will be handled and extinguished immediately so as to ensure people enjoy a happy and peaceful Spring Festival.”

The authorities are taking no chances. After a recent Omicron case in Beijing was blamed on mail from Canada, China began urging people to wear gloves and masks when opening post from overseas, and there have been reports of people’s health codes – which govern where they can enter and travel – going yellow after receiving foreign mail.

Officials who fail to effectively contain outbreaks face potential demotion or the loss of their jobs. As the Spring Festival travel period ramps up, some local governments have encouraged people to stay away, imposing strict testing requirements upon their arrival or even offering cash subsidies to those who remain home.

In Beijing, which is preparing to host the Winter Olympics next month, many residents have already decided to stay put, fearing that if they leave the capital they may not be able to return until after the Games end on Feb. 20. Recent targeted lockdowns in Shanghai have sparked similar concerns, with many people wary of the risks of travel – not so much contracting COVID-19 as ending up in a lengthy quarantine.

“We don’t really talk about catching COVID, we talk about quarantine measures and how intense and stressful they are,” said Erin Zhang, a business development executive in Shanghai, adding that even people who do plan to travel aren’t necessarily confident they will be able to do so.

There is also the risk of punishment should travellers be found to have breached new regulations or testing protocols, even inadvertently.

On Thursday, Dong Hong, the head of Dancheng County, in eastern Henan province, was caught on video at a local government meeting warning travellers: “Once you come back home, you will be quarantined and then arrested.” After the clip went viral, Mr. Dong said it had been misleadingly edited and claimed he was only referring to people who “return home maliciously,” though he did not clarify what that meant.

Alexandra Li contributed to this report.

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