Friday, January 27

Hong Kong to abolish hotel quarantine in bid to end city’s isolation


HONG KONG — Hong Kong said Friday that it would abolish mandatory quarantine for travelers, easing rigid pandemic rules that have isolated the once-thriving financial center, pummeled the economy and fueled an exodus of residents.

John Lee, the city’s leader, announced an end to the system whereby arriving passengers had to spend lengthy periods confined to a hotel room. Starting Monday, travelers will be able to do a PCR test on arrival, then perform medical monitoring in their hotel or home for three days. During this time they will not be able to enter bars or restaurants but will otherwise be allowed to move around the city. Additional coronavirus tests and a further four days of self-monitoring will be required in the period after arrival.

“We hope to reduce the inconvenience for arriving passengers. We don’t want to move backwards,” Lee said in a news conference, emphasizing the need to balance health risks with the desire for economic revival.

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The question many are asking is whether the measures are too little, too late. Hong Kong’s population dropped at its steepest rate on record over the past year and its labor force continued to shrink. Many of those leaving have cited China’s crackdown on the city’s freedoms in addition to some of the world’s toughest pandemic restrictions. Meanwhile, countries such as Singapore that reopened sooner have lured businesses and tourists.

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

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Hong Kong officials long hewed closely to China’s goal of stamping out outbreaks, though without the more-extreme measures seen in the mainland. But people who tested positive for the virus were routinely shipped off to spartan isolation rooms — with parents sometimes separated from their children.

Brian Leung, an American who works in health care, left Hong Kong in June after more than a decade in the city. He said he moved to Singapore because the Southeast Asian city-state relied “more on scientific decisions, rather than political” considerations to inform its approach to living with covid-19.

“Hong Kong was a great city, but with how it coped with the pandemic a lot of weaknesses came out,” Leung said, adding that some of the covid rules had been “inhumane.” “We were scarred by that.”

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

“A lot of airlines will be keeping an eye on Hong Kong, but will be reluctant to commit anything to the market until they see clear evidence that the restrictions are being removed and more importantly … will not be reintroduced,” Willie Walsh, director general of the International Air Transport Association, said in a media briefing this month.

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Elsewhere in the region, Japan is set to remove entry limits on Oct. 11 and Taiwan plans to end quarantine from the middle of next month.

To kick-start Hong Kong’s reopening, the city plans to host a financial forum and a rugby Sevens tournament in November.

Epidemiologists, business leaders and even pro-Beijing politicians who once hailed the importance of attaining “zero covid” had called for the government to relax the quarantine requirements, expressing worries about sacrificing the city’s competitiveness for a virus that has become far less of a threat with the advent of effective vaccines, improved treatments and increased immunity.

What’s more, the strict border rules didn’t stop the virus from leaking in. For a time, Hong Kong had the developed world’s highest death rate from covid-19 owing to its failure to adequately vaccinate its elderly population. The city has reported thousands of coronavirus cases a day for months.

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Yet the easing of quarantine may do little to boost the economy in the short run, experts said.

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

John Mullally, managing director at recruitment consultancy Robert Walters, said Friday’s announcement was a “really good first step,” but warned it could take “three years for the city to take back its pre-pandemic caliber and the type of talent to trickle back in.” He estimated that about 15 to 17 percent of foreign and mainland Chinese finance workers have left Hong Kong.

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Gary Ng, senior economist at Natixis, said the latest entry requirements will still involve the inconveniences of mandatory testing and use of health codes, making rival hub Singapore a better option for foreign businesses looking to send talent to Asia in the near term, Ng said.

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