Hong Kong abandons hotel quarantine, easing covid rules

HONG KONG – Hong Kong said on Friday it would end mandatory quarantine for travelers, easing strict pandemic rules that have isolated the once-thriving financial center, battered the economy and spurred an exodus of residents.

As of Monday, City Manager John Lee said Travelers can take a PCR test upon arrival, then perform medical monitoring within three days at their hotel or home via an app that assigns a color-coded health card. During this time, they cannot enter bars or restaurants, but can otherwise move around the city. Additional coronavirus tests and an additional four days of self-examination are required in the post-arrival period.

“We hope to reduce the inconvenience of arriving passengers. We don’t want to move backwards,” Lee said at a press conference, emphasizing the need to balance health risks with the desire to revive the economy.

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The moves are meant to reinvigorate the once freewheeling international city, which has lost some of its competitive edge due to the world’s toughest coronavirus restrictions.

But many are questioning whether the measures are too little or too late. Hong Kong’s population shrank at a record pace over the past year, and the workforce continued to shrink. Many of those leaving have cited both pandemic restrictions and China’s crackdown on the city’s freedoms. Meanwhile, countries that have reopened earlier, such as Singapore, have attracted businesses and tourists.

The relaxation comes ahead of a meeting of Chinese Communist Party leaders in Beijing, where President Xi Jinping is expected to seek a third term amid discontent over his strict zero-covid policy.

Hong Kong officials had long tried to adhere to China’s goal of halting outbreaks, albeit without the more extreme measures seen on the mainland. Arriving passengers were forced to spend up to three weeks in captivity hotel room. Residents who tested positive for the coronavirus were routinely sent to spartan isolation rooms, where parents were sometimes separated from their children. The city still imposes mandatory mask wearing and limits the size of gatherings.

Brian Leung, an American working in healthcare, left Hong Kong in June after more than a decade in the city. He said he moved to Singapore because it based its approach to Covid-19 on “more scientific decisions rather than political” considerations.

“Hong Kong was a great city, but there were a lot of weaknesses in dealing with the pandemic,” Leung said, adding that some of the Covid rules had been “inhumane”. “It scared us.”

While some other places in East Asia have been slow to reopen, Hong Kong’s disconnect with the world has been particularly hard hit because of its role as a global financial capital. Uncertainty over when Hong Kong will end its isolation caused at least 45 airlines to stop flying to what was previously one of the world’s busiest aviation hubs.

“Many airlines are keeping an eye on Hong Kong but are reluctant to commit to the market until they see clear evidence that the restrictions have been lifted and more importantly … they will not be imposed,” CEO Willie Walsh, a member of the International Air Transport Association, said this month. at the media briefing.

Japan is reopening. But the consequences of this border closure remain.

Elsewhere in the region, Japan will lift entry restrictions on October 11 and Taiwan plans to end its quarantine next month.

To kick off Hong Kong’s reopening, the city plans to host a financial forum and a rugby sevens match in November.

Epidemiologists, business leaders and even pro-Beijing politicians, who once hailed the importance of achieving zero covid, have called on the government to relax quarantine requirements, expressing concern about sacrificing the city’s competitiveness for a virus that has become much less of a threat. with effective vaccines, improved treatment and increased immunity.

Moreover, strict border rules did not prevent the virus from leaking. For a while, Hong Kong had the highest COVID-19 death rate in the developed world due to a failure to adequately vaccinate its elderly population. The city has been reporting thousands of coronavirus cases a day for months.

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Experts said that ending the quarantine may not boost the economy in the short term.

Terence Chong Tai-leung, an economics professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said he did not expect a “huge immediate impact” because Hong Kong’s fortunes are closely tied to those of mainland China, which remains largely closed. Without mainland tourists, Hong Kong lost much of its retail sales.

John Mullally, managing director of recruitment consultancy Robert Walters, hailed Friday as a “really good first step” but predicted it could take three years for the city to regain its pre-pandemic caliber and … talent to flow back in. He estimates that about 15 to 17 percent of foreign and mainland Chinese financial workers have left Hong Kong.

Natixis senior economist Gary Ng said entry into Hong Kong still comes with the inconvenience of mandatory testing and health codes, making Singapore a better option for foreign companies looking to send talent to Asia in the near term.

After a long period of isolation, Hong Kongers were desperate to book trips on Friday. The websites of Cathay Pacific, the city’s largest airline, and low-cost carrier HK Express were jammed by users as fares rose in response to pent-up demand.

Tiffany Yiu, who works in the jewelery industry, said Hong Kong’s gradual reopening was a “relief”. The 29-year-old, who has not traveled since late 2019, planned a trip to Thailand in December but decided to wait until the rush to book flights passed so she could get cheaper tickets.

“Everyone has been patient and waited a very long time,” he said. “I look forward to traveling so much and have learned not to take it for granted.”

David Crawshaw in Sydney contributed to this report.