The portable PCR testing booth dangled in the air over a dark Beijing street, captured on camera as it was winched away by a crane in the middle of the night. The image spread rapidly across Chinese social media, the perfect symbol of the bewilderingly rapid end of a draconian era.

In the face of the most widespread national protests since the bloody crackdown on Tiananmen Square demonstrators in 1989, the Chinese government has abruptly abandoned its flagship zero-Covid policy.

In Beijing, people prepared to go into shopping malls or on public transport without a recent negative test. Elsewhere, they were allowed to enter parks and supermarkets without checks, or told they could quarantine at home – rather than a government facility – if they had come into contact with a case.

For nearly three years the authorities have battled to keep Covid out of the country, using every tool of technology, mass mobilisation and repression at their disposal, regardless of the tragic costs to individuals and the terrible damage to the national economy.

China became a nation of vigilance, constantly on guard against the virus lapping at its shores. Xi Jinping, China’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong, was champion of this isolationist approach.

Now Beijing has decided to move on. Sun Chunlan, vice-premier and Covid chief, announced last week that the country’s health system had “withstood the test” of Covid-19 and China was in a “new situation”.

After years of telling its citizens that the only way to stay safe from Covid was to avoid it entirely, the policy pivot required a new message. Beijing has opted for presenting the prevailing Omicron variant as a less lethal version of the original disease.

Xi told visiting European Council president Charles Michel that China could look at easing restrictions because Omicron is less dangerous than the Delta variant, which was most common before.