Despite calls to drop Covid-19 quarantine, Hong Kong sees no change before July

Hong Kong mandates a seven-day quarantine for incoming travellers. PHOTO: REUTERS

HONG KONG (BLOOMBERG) - Hong Kong will not tighten virus curbs before July 1 despite rising Covid-19 cases because hospitals are not overwhelmed, the city’s outgoing Chief Executive Carrie Lam said.

“The increase in number of positive cases has not brought unbearable pressure on the health care system and that’s attributable to the nature of Omicron,” Mrs Lam said on Tuesday (June 14) at the final weekly press conference of her term that ends June 30. 

Hong Kong reported 737 new infections on Monday, down from more than 800 on Saturday and Sunday, but more than double the figures from May.

Of the 371 people hospitalised with Covid-19, only three were in intensive care, with most other patients either asymptomatic or reporting mild infections, Mrs Lam said. 

Based on that situation, “until the end of June, we will not make any significant adjustments or relaxations” to virus curbs, she said, adding that the city still needed to be “cautious” about imported cases and maintain measures such as mask wearing and limitations on large gatherings.

Hong Kong residents will have to show a negative Covid-19 test result to enter the city’s bars and nightclubs starting on Thursday (June 16) and running through the end of the month, Health Secretary Sophia Chan said.

The decision comes as many Covid-19 cases were driven by transmission at nightlife venues that only recently were allowed to reopen.

There have been six Covid clusters at the city’s bars since they reopened, involving 350 cases, officials said.

Law enforcement officials will step up efforts to uncover non-compliance among customers and management of social venues, Ms Chan said at an afternoon briefing.

Facilities that break the rules will be required to close for two weeks, she said.

The test must be taken within 24 hours of entering the bar or club, Ms Chan said. No details were given on how tests would be checked.  

Finding balance

Mrs Lam also said Hong Kong needs to find a balance between the “dual objectives” of relaxing the international border controls that are key to its reputation as a financial hub and creating the right conditions to resume quarantine-free travel with the mainland.

While she acknowledged business chambers had pushed for Hong Kong to scrap the mandatory seven-day hotel quarantine for incoming travelers, she said she couldn’t ease measures without knowing the plans of her successor John Lee. 

If we were to relax quarantine rules tomorrow, "but then in two weeks’ time the new government decided that perhaps this needed to be reverted to a more tightened approach, that would create a lot of confusion", Mrs Lam said.

Mr Lee’s term will begin on July 1, the 25th anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover from British to Chinese rule – a major event that President Xi Jinping is believed to be preparing to travel to the city to mark, if favorable conditions are met. 

Mrs Lam did not confirm whether the city’s rising case numbers would prevent the Chinese leader from visiting Hong Kong, a trip that would mark his first outside mainland China since January 2020.

“We, of course, would like to have a cheerful atmosphere to celebrate the reunification,” she said.

Hong Kong's lobby group for fund managers had urged incoming chief executive Lee to scrap quarantine rules for travellers and open up to the rest of the world as urgency is needed to restore the city's status as an international financial centre.

The city's financial industry has been "battered" by the quarantine measures, said Ms Sally Wong, the chief executive of the Hong Kong Investment Funds Association, which represents firms with more than US$52 trillion (S$72 trillion) in assets under management, in an email to Bloomberg News.

"The longer we are stuck in this restrictive mode, the more we are reducing our relevance and competitiveness in the international arena," she said.

Loosely following mainland China's zero Covid approach, Hong Kong mandates a seven-day quarantine for incoming travellers even as rival centres such as Singapore, London and New York have dropped all restrictions.

The city has seen an outflow of tens of thousands of residents, including bankers and finance industry professionals who have chafed at the strict social distancing and quarantine rules.

Signs have mounted recently that officials have grown concerned.

The city has drifted from President Xi's strict Covid-19 policy of eliminating the virus in recent months, resisting tightening curbs even as it has seen more than 800 daily infections.

Even the outgoing leader Mrs Lam said last week that the travel restrictions have undermined the city's status as a finance hub.

Officials are now planning for a summit in November and will seek to invite top bankers and asset managers in a show that the city is getting back on its feet.

Given the planned summit the city must have some "working assumptions" and officials should share any plans "as to how, when Hong Kong will open up to the rest of the world", Ms Wong said in the email.

"If we can achieve quarantine free travel soon, the November summit would be propitious to show that Hong Kong's connectivity with the rest of the world is back in motion; and we are firing on all cylinders," she said.

Wish list

The group is also preparing a larger "wish list" of what it expects from Mr Lee when he takes over in July, according to Ms Wong.

One issue that needs to be addressed is the "teething problems" in Stock Connect, a link that allows investors to buy stocks in mainland China.

Its need-to-fix list includes allowing block and holiday trading as well as opening access to initial public offerings in mainland China, according to Ms Wong.

The group said rules should be relaxed in other cross-border schemes such as the Mutual Fund Recognition and the Wealth Management Connect, and to allow China's growing private pension funds to invest through Hong Kong's approved pension scheme.

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