China’s operators reported a combined loss of nearly 21 million subscribers in the first two months of the year, as restrictions imposed to slow the spread of Covid-19 (coronavirus) kept customers away from retail outlets.

The vast majority of the losses (19.4 million) came in February, when measures to contain the pandemic widened.

While the decline represented a small percentage of the total subscriber base of 1.58 billion at end-February, it is the country’s first collective loss in at least a decade.

Market leader China Mobile shed 8 million customers in January and February, leaving it with 942 million at the end of last month, while China Unicom, the third-largest operator, lost 7.78 million for a total of 310.7 million. China Telecom’s tally fell 5.17 million to 330.4 million.

One operator representative noted physical channels were not operating normally during the timeframe. Although online services were available, many customers still prefer to visit retail shops to open new accounts and obtain other services, so restrictions on openings reduced user additions, local media reported.

Sources at the operators said the decrease also was a result of a regular culling of temporary SIM cards which expired, while a nationwide move to number portability, coupled with a reduction in tariffs, led to a decline in the number of dual-SIM users.

Another representative said operators expect that as the country experiences a gradual recovery of economic and social activities, the number of mobile users is to likely increase.

Data from China Telecom showed it is already experiencing a rebound in new additions, with an average of 245,000 a day from 1 March to 22 March, up 114 per cent from February, reported.