HONG KONG (BLOOMBERG, REUTERS) - Hong Kong will reduce the period of time arrivals must spend in hotel quarantine to three days, plus four days of health monitoring, the latest move to ease travel restrictions that have largely isolated the Asian financial hub throughout the pandemic.
During the health monitoring period, people can leave their homes but are forbidden from entering high-risk premises like restaurants and bars.
The new rules come into effect on Friday.
“We need to balance between people’s livelihood and the competitiveness of Hong Kong to give the community maximum momentum and economic vitality,” Chief Executive John Lee said on Monday (Aug 8).
People in quarantine will be issued a red code on a government mandated app. This will change to a yellow code once they leave quarantine, signifying they may not enter crowded premises.
The easier-to-endure quarantine period follows the removal of flight suspensions on July 7 that imposed snap bans on certain routes if they inadvertently brought in passengers infected with Covid-19, making it difficult for travellers to plan their trips.
The city’s main carrier Cathay Pacific Airways described Monday's move as a positive step, yet it still leaves Hong Kong more closed off than other places – beyond mainland China – that have dropped most curbs on travel and allow much freer movement.
A clear plan to lift all Covid-19 travel restrictions is needed to protect Hong Kong’s status as an aviation hub, the airline said on Monday.
Airport Authority Hong Kong, which manages the city’s airport, welcomed the quarantine adjustment and said it will be conducive to a recovery in traffic.
The easing measures implemented during Mr Lee's early days in office are part of his plan to restore the city's stature without alienating Chinese officials committed to rooting out the virus.
Anticipation had been building for weeks that the new administration would cut the seven-day hotel quarantine that international travellers face when entering the city.
While Mr Lee said in late June he aimed to reduce the duration of quarantine to five days, there has been little progress until now.
A planned press conference on the issue on Friday was cancelled due to unresolved technical problems, the South China Morning Post reported.
The city's strict rules - at a time when much of the rest of the world has abandoned Covid-19 curbs - have deterred travelers and undermined Hong Kong's future as an international finance centre.
The slow pace of reducing quarantine also shows the city's struggle to balance limiting new Covid-19 cases and opening up its international borders.
Reduced quarantine may not ease headaches for travel into Hong Kong. Rooms are in short supply, costs are high, while anyone who is infected in the days before their trip are forced to delay travel.
Once inside the city, public gatherings of more than four people are still banned - though indoor events can be larger - and masks are mandatory.
There is little sign Hong Kong will abandon its cautious approach toward the virus, even as curbs weigh on the economy. Gross domestic product contracted 1.4 per cent in the second quarter from a year earlier. The city reported more than 4,000 infections on Sunday.
Schools will continue to operate under half-day class arrangements in the upcoming school year until further notice, the government said on Friday. An isolation facility with 3,000 units at the site of the city's old airport has just been launched, with the security minister highlighting sea views from some of the rooms in a social media post.