Hong Kong airport to ban transit travellers from places at high risk of Covid-19

The suspension will start on Jan 15 and run through Feb 14, 2022. PHOTO: REUTERS

HONG KONG (BLOOMBERG) - Air passengers from so-called Group A, or designated high-risk countries, are set to be banned from transiting through Hong Kong International Airport, according to people familiar with the matter, another move in the financial hub's aggressive effort to shield itself from Omicron.

Airport officials recently briefed carriers about the plan, the people said, asking not to be identified because the details are not yet public.

The suspension will start on Saturday (Jan 15) and run through Feb 14, though the end date will be subject to review, one of the people said.

Procedures for how the ban will operate are still to be laid out, another person said.

While traffic volumes are thin now due to the pandemic, the move is likely to disproportionately affect Cathay Pacific Airways, the city's flagship carrier that handles the vast majority of passenger transfers.

Prior to Covid-19, Hong Kong was a busy hub for transits from mainland China, Taiwan and several other areas in the region, as well as long hauls such as the United States and Britain.

Hong Kong is grappling with a relatively small outbreak of the Omicron variant in the community, imposing fresh curbs on a broad range of activities as it strives to stick to a zero-tolerance Covid-19 strategy.

The government said on Tuesday that in-person classes at kindergartens and primary schools would be suspended from Friday until after the Chinese New Year holidays next month.

There are around 150 countries and territories in Hong Kong's Group A list, including the eight nations that have specific route flight bans in place due to Covid-19 cases on board. Those eight are Australia, Canada, France, India, the Philippines, Pakistan, Britain and the US.

"Cathay Pacific's cash burn may increase in Q1 as its capacity is cut further due to Hong Kong's border restrictions. But it may have sufficient liquidity to withstand this, with HK$7.8 billion (S$1.35 billion) in government loans still undrawn," said Ms Sharon Chen, a BI credit analyst.

Hong Kong prohibited all passenger airport transfers in March 2020, in the early days of the pandemic, but gradually resumed them in the subsequent months, apart from into mainland China.

While travel restrictions have severely restricted traffic throughout the Covid-19 crisis, Cathay Pacific had said it was experiencing healthy demand on transit flights.

The suspension on passenger transfer services will not apply to diplomats, government officials and athletes and staff participating in the Winter Olympics in Beijing, according to the people. The 2022 Winter Olympics start on Feb 4.

"We are in close communication with the airport community on measures to strengthen infection control at the airport," Airport Authority Hong Kong said in an e-mailed statement.

Countries in the Group A bloc include traditionally popular Hong Kong transit routes, including Singapore, Australia and a raft of European nations.

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