Hong Kong is set to resume international flights from the United States, Britain and seven other countries, the government said Monday as it announced a loosening of some of the world’s toughest Covid-19 restrictions.
The finance hub has struggled to maintain China’s zero-Covid policy during an Omicron-fuelled outbreak.
After the highly transmissible variant fuelled a fresh wave of cases in January, authorities quickly put in place flight bans from eight countries deemed high-ris – including the United States, Britain, France and India – and in February added a ninth, Nepal.
But infections climbed rapidly, with Hong Kong recording more than a million cases and 5,600 deaths, with the bulk of the toll among its unvaccinated elderly population.
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On Monday, Lam said starting April 1, Hong Kong will lift flight bans – referred to as a “circuit-breaker” -for the nine countries.
“The circuit-breaker … is inopportune now,” she said during a press conference.
“The epidemic situations in those countries are not worse than Hong Kong’s, and most arrivals did not have serious symptoms. To extend the circuit-breaker will add to concerns and anxieties of Hong Kong residents stranded there.”
The quarantine period for vaccinated arrivals will also be reduced to seven days in a designated hotel, followed by another seven days of at-home monitoring – though Lam did not specify what date the change will begin.
Currently, Hong Kong residents trying to return from most destinations face a two-week quarantine stay in expensive hotels.
Lam also announced that starting April 19, kindergartens, primary schools and international schools will resume in-person teaching.
Beginning April 21, restaurants may stay open after 6 pm for dine-in services – currently banned – while public gatherings can include four people, up from the current two.
Suspended mass testing
Lam’s administration has been excoriated for its handling of the Covid crisis, with critics calling it unprepared despite two years of breathing room due to the low number of cases before Omicron hit in January.
Once the variant broke through, hospital wards were flooded with patients and morgues overcrowded with bodies – leading to a coffin shortage last week.
Hong Kong currently has one of the highest death rates from Covid in the developed world.
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Unclear public messaging from the government over mass testing and city lockdown measures has also fuelled bouts of panic-buying – leaving supermarkets shelves stripped bare.
Known as “Asia’s World City”, Hong Kong has also seen a record exodus of both foreign and local residents, with a net outflow of more than 134,000 people by mid-March.
Travel warnings were also issued by the United States over the potential for children to be separated from parents if they were to test positive for Covid upon arrival.
On Monday, Lam said that a previously floated plan to mass test Hong Kong’s 7.4 million residents was “not appropriate” at this stage, given the city’s limited resources.
“Our current opinion is to suspend it and whether we will do it depends on the development of the epidemic,” the leader said.
Hong Kong’s deepened international isolation and lack of a roadmap to normality have incited complaints from business and diplomatic communities, even prompting some major international banks to accelerate relocations.