Hong Kong lifts international travel quarantine after more than 900 days

Hong Kong

The Hong Kong government has announced the end of formal quarantine for international travelers after more than two and a half years of strict pandemic controls.

Under new rules that take effect from September 26, incoming travelers must undergo three days of self-screening upon arrival.

Hong Kong’s government has faced considerable pressure from its business community and some public health officials to loosen restrictions amid a faltering economy, an outflow of foreigners and concerns that the financial hub, once known as “Asia’s World City” , was left behind as the rest of the world continued to suffer from the pandemic.

Baby with Covid separated from family and alone in quarantine in Hong Kong

Hong Kong’s chief executive, John Lee, said in a highly anticipated press conference on Friday that the city’s number of infections has stabilized, making the lifting of quarantine possible.

“We hope to provide the maximum space to reconnect Hong Kong and revitalize our economy,” Lee said.

Incoming travelers can do their three-day self-check at home or a place of their own choice. During this time they can go outside, but are restricted from some places.

Arrivals are no longer required to provide a negative PCR test before boarding a plane. However, they will have to provide a negative rapid antigen test (RAT) 24 hours before boarding.

In the three-day monitoring period, people will be assigned an amber color under the city’s digital health code, which will prevent them from entering places such as bars or restaurants.

They will have to do PCR tests on days 2, 4 and 6 after arrival, and a RAT test every day for seven days after arrival.

The policy change came after Japan announced it will reopen its borders from October 11 and after Taiwan said it intends to scrap its mandatory quarantine on October 13 when the island has the peak of its latest Omicron BA-5 outbreak passed on

Questions about when the city would ease restrictions have become clearer after two major international events, the Hong Kong Sevens rugby tournament and a world banking conference, were scheduled for November and are seen as a way to revive the beleaguered city , which has been rocked in recent years by pro-democracy protests and a subsequent crackdown on civil liberties by Beijing.

While several governments introduced border controls after the outbreak of the pandemic, most have since rolled back the measures, including Singapore, which typically battles with Hong Kong to attract foreign business and talent.

But unlike other global hubs, Hong Kong’s Covid-19 policy has long been seen as closely tied to mainland China, where Beijing maintains a strict zero-Covid policy and border quarantines, with no sign of easing, to The eradication of infection remains a top priority.

Calls to loosen international border controls under Lee’s predecessor Carrie Lam, who left office on June 30, were hampered by a competing demand to open quarantine-free travel to the mainland – a claim that has yet to be fulfilled .

A public signal of Beijing’s support for Hong Kong’s new policy route came on September 20, when the deputy head of the Hong Kong and Macao Bureau Huang Liuquan said the Hong Kong government had coordinated its policies in accordance with its local situation and adjustments made need not be “overinterpreted”.

While Hong Kong’s new international arrivals policy may not be a harbinger of imminent change in mainland policy, it is a sign of divergent situations on each side of the border.

Although the city kept local cases to a minimum for the first two years of the pandemic, Hong Kong experienced an explosive outbreak of the highly infectious Omicron variant earlier this year and has not returned to a zero-Covid stance since. Instead, the city has continued to clock between hundreds and thousands of daily cases. Official records show that more than 1.7 million cases have been reported in the city of 7.4 million, although experts believe the real number is higher.

In mainland China, by contrast, the vast majority of the country has yet to be exposed to the virus – putting its population at a disadvantage when it comes to natural immunity to infection, a concern for health officials there who fear for the strain of a large-scale outbreak on the health care system.

Hong Kong’s new measures come more than 900 days after the city first imposed border restrictions in March 2020 and nearly two years after it imposed a hotel quarantine on all international arrivals in December 2020. At its longest, the quarantine period stretched to 21 days. Travelers who tested positive during quarantine were moved to designated facilities, including, sometimes, government camps.

The program became increasingly controversial among the public after Covid-19 vaccines became widely available, local case numbers rose and places with similar systems such as New Zealand and Australia opened their borders.

This summer, a shortage of available hotel rooms and limited flights sparked public outrage as travelers risked being stranded out of town until a free room opened up if their itinerary was disrupted, for example by catching Covid-19 or having rescheduled a flight.

Certain restrictions have been eased in recent months. In May, non-Hong Kong residents were allowed to enter the city from abroad for the first time in more than two years, while a schedule that saw some flights carrying Covid-positive passengers suspended was scrapped in July.

Earlier this summer, Lee’s administration reduced quarantine from one week to three days, plus an additional four days of health monitoring, during which arrivals are not allowed to go to places including bars, gyms and restaurants.

Hotel quarantine and pre-flight testing requirements were seen as a remaining significant barrier to travel into the city, although questions remain about what role the new plan will play in reviving the city’s once-vibrant tourism industry.