China plays down COVID outbreak amid holiday rush

STORY: Trains and buses across China were packed for one of the busiest days of travel in years on Friday (January 20).

Feeding fears of new surges in a raging COVID-19 outbreak that officials say has hit its peak.

It comes as China reported a large jump in COVID-19 hospitalizations in the week through to January 15, to the highest since the pandemic began, according to a report published by the World Health Organization on Thursday (January 19).

Hospitalizations rose by 70% on the previous week to 63,307, according to the WHO, citing data submitted by Beijing.

The same day, state media quoted Vice Premier Sun Chunlan as saying the virus was at a "relatively low" level.

And health officials said the number of COVID patients in hospital and with critical conditions was on the decline.

But there are widespread doubts about China's official account of an outbreak that has overwhelmed hospitals and funeral homes since Beijing abandoned strict COVID controls and mass testing last month.

Some health experts expect that more than one million people will die from the disease in China this year.

And documents show spending by funeral homes on items from body bags to cremation ovens has risen in many provinces.

Regardless, more than 2 billion trips are expected to take place across China between January 7 and February 15, the government estimates.

President Xi Jinping said this week he was concerned about an influx of travelers to rural areas with weak medical systems.

And that protecting the elderly - many of whom are not fully vaccinated - was a top priority.

On Friday, the WHO's director of immunisation said China had made "enormous progress" on delivering both primary and booster doses for older adults.