HONG KONG (BLOOMBERG) - Hong Kong's commerce secretary has defended the government's abrupt U-turn to reimpose some of the world's strictest quarantine policies, saying Covid-19 must be kept at bay before borders are fully reopened.
The city last week abandoned an attempt to cut quarantine to just seven days for some vaccinated travellers, and put more countries on the high-risk level that requires three weeks of hotel quarantine.
The about-face sparked anger from travellers and business groups, especially after it was revealed that actress Nicole Kidman was given an exemption from quarantine.
"We are playing a safe strategy that we must keep Covid-19 at bay before we talk about a full and entire open border or economy," Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development Edward Yau said in an interview with Bloomberg TV on Monday (Aug 23).
Reopening the border with mainland China "remains one of the major priority areas", he said.
The rapid reversal in quarantine policy triggered strong opposition, with the European Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong writing an open letter to Chief Executive Carrie Lam saying the rules leave residents trapped in the city, threatening its standing as a global finance hub.
Hong Kong's push to stamp out the virus leaves it at odds with other so-called Covid-Zero havens, which are starting to shift their strategies in the light of the more infectious Delta variant.
Singapore is seeking to add more countries to its quarantine-free travel channel, while spreading outbreaks are forcing Australia and New Zealand to rethink their approach to Covid-Zero.
The Hong Kong government understands the difficulties for companies and senior executives who need to travel, Mr Yau said, noting that the 21-day quarantine regime has posed "both physical and mental" stress.
The system remains flexible, with the government constantly adjusting the list of countries with different risk levels, he said.
While fully vaccinated travellers from high-risk countries need to undergo 21 days of hotel quarantine, the period is cut to 14 days for those from medium-risk countries.
Those travelling from New Zealand are required to quarantine for just seven days.
Yet some exceptions are made. Academy Award-winning actress Kidman was allowed in to film an Amazon.com series on the city's expat lifestyle.
The regulations allow for exemptions for people who "might have an impact or interest in the wider economic development", including workers maintaining food supplies as well as aircrew, Mr Yau said.
"In my small area of facilitating film production, we are making a small exception to a handful of people who need to come in to do the production," he said. "Our job is to make sure we have good connection with the wider world in every aspect."