China regulators, state banks split staff as fears mount about new COVID outbreaks-sources

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FILE PHOTO: China Securities Regulatory Commission (CSRC) building in Beijing

By Julie Zhu, Selena Li and Ziyi Tang

HONG KONG/BEIJING (Reuters) -Chinese regulators and state-owned banks are taking steps to split staff at their workplaces in Beijing, sources told Reuters, as businesses brace for a possible spike in COVID cases after China relaxed virus restrictions in a major policy shift.

The arrangements highlight how lingering anxieties created by Beijing’s three-year ‘zero-COVID’ policy are likely to hamper a quick return to health for the world’s second-largest economy, despite its pivot away from strict containment measures.

China’s top securities regulator has this week moved to a closed-loop system, which refers to a bubble-like arrangement commonly imposed as part of virus prevention measures in China, where employees sleep, live and work isolated from the wider world, said two sources with knowledge of the matter.

The China Securities Regulatory Commission (CSRC) plans to allow only a couple of employees in each department to come to headquarters, and has asked some of them to prepare for a prolonged stay on the premises, the sources said.

Other staff are required to work from home, they added.

Manufacturers and eateries keen to stay open in China are also preferring to err on the side of caution, by retaining COVID-19 curbs until they get a clearer picture of just how workplaces will be affected by the easing of stringent measures.

The China Banking and Insurance Regulatory Commission (CBIRC) this week also issued instructions to its staff based in Beijing and plans to implement split shift working arrangements from next week, said a person with direct knowledge of the matter.

The National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) has informed its staff that it would split them into two groups, with each returning to the workplace on alternate weeks, said another person with direct knowledge of the matter.

The CRSC, CBIRC and NDRC did not immediately respond to Reuters request for comment.

Chinese government bodies and banks in Beijing have been operating at normal office staffing capacity this year as the city stuck to a stringent zero-COVID protocols, with staff generally not allowed to leave the city for nonessential reasons.

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Among China’s big four state-owned banks, Bank of China (BOC) has released a notice to staff that it would split its Beijing workforce into three groups, working in the office on alternate weeks, said a person with direct knowledge.

But the bank has yet to decide when to start such rotations, the person added.

BOC declined to comment.

Other large state banks have also made similar arrangements – splitting up staff into rotating shifts while maintaining a maximum of 10%-20% of staff occupancy in their headquarters in Beijing, said two other people with knowledge of the matter.

“Fear among staff of getting COVID appears to be incredibly high in Beijing at present, as one can assume the virus will move through the city very quickly,” said Tom Simpson, managing director and chief representative of the China-Britain Business Council.

“There is a new fear among people from getting COVID, and that is putting people off from going into the office, and companies are generally not forcing people to go in, either,” he added.

According to a representative from the European Union Chamber of Commerce in China, its members are now planning for scenarios where they may be able to continue their general operations in spite of a rise in cases.

“This is not an easy task at the moment, as there is still significant discrepancy between the pandemic-related guidelines of different cities and regions…Given we are now three years into the pandemic, most companies have taken steps to facilitate their staff to work remotely,” said the representative.

(Reporting by Julie Zhu and Selena Li in Hong Kong, Ziyi Tang, Joe Cash and Kevin Huang in Beijing and Josh Horwitz in Shanghai; Editing by Sumeet Chatterjee and Kim Coghill)

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