Hong Kong govt stands firm on reopening borders, but eases rules on social distancing

Chief Executive Carrie Lam said it was necessary to prevent any importation of Covid-19 cases. PHOTO: AFP

HONG KONG - Chief Executive Carrie Lam has remained firm on not reopening the territory's border despite mounting pressure to do otherwise, announcing instead on Tuesday (Oct 12) an easing of social distancing rules.

Mrs Lam said it was necessary to prevent any importation of Covid-19 cases as the key was to reopen the border with the mainland which Hong Kong's fortunes are tied to.

She was unable to say when the border with China would reopen but was hopeful that experts from both sides would meet again soon to iron out details. They last met in late September.

"Yesterday, there were seven imported cases from different parts of the world. You can imagine, without the quarantine arrangement, these cases would have gone into the community," Mrs Lam said at her weekly briefing.

Last week, a single confirmed case involving a freight worker at the airport led to the mandatory quarantine of more than 400 individuals - about 100 close contacts and some 300 secondary contacts - in the Penny Bay facility.

The case broke Hong Kong's zero-Covid-19 streak that lasted 51 days.

So far, the city has recorded more than 12,200 cases and 213 deaths since the pandemic started.

The numbers, among the lowest in the world, have been attributed to the city's zero-Covid-19 strategy, which is similar to that of the mainland and Macau.

Hong Kong has adopted a number of tough measures to keep the disease at bay.

Only residents mostly are allowed to enter the territory as part of strict border controls with mandatory quarantine of up to 21 days for all arrivals.

Testing, contact tracing surveillance and high awareness among the population have also been cited for the city's success in battling Covid-19.

The city's vaccination rate however has been lagging.

The government failed in its aim to vaccinate 70 per cent of the population by end September and, currently, about 67 per cent of those eligible aged 12 and above have had at least one dose and 64 per cent have had both doses of a vaccine.

Officials have said that borders will not be reopened until 80 per cent to 90 per cent of the population have been fully vaccinated.

Life has gradually returned to normal in the city - bars and pubs are open till 4am and eateries until 2am, with tables sitting up to 12 people - but the government's tough on-arrival rules have drawn flak from business leaders, both local and overseas.

They say some companies are either in the midst of or are thinking of shifting key functions to other places, such as Singapore, that have decided to treat Covid-19 as endemic.

But Mrs Lam remains unfazed, insisting that the zero-Covid-19 policy did not affect Hong Kong's position as an international financial centre.

"I don't think our position or status will be affected simply because of the closure of borders because of the pandemic.

"In fact, we have managed the pandemic very well in terms of the community and business sectors. For 21 months, people can still go to work. In other countries or places, they have a lockdown order but we have never implemented that in Hong Kong," she said.

Mrs Lam said she hoped that most residents could agree that "we have to remain status quo for a while", adding that reviews would be conducted to allow the public to "live happier" including letting people go for marathons and concerts, although group sizes may be smaller.

On Tuesday, Hong Kong's Food and Health Bureau extended for another two weeks till Oct 27 social distancing measures such as compulsory mask-wearing and public gatherings of up to four people in a group.

The government has also moved to allow two more "vaccine bubble" arrangements for gyms.

Such arrangements typically mean a business can open longer hours and have more patrons depending on the vaccination rates of staff and customers.

Under the latest arrangement, gym classes can be allowed to have up to 12 people if staff are fully vaccinated and all users wear masks. Customers will be allowed to exercise without masks if all staff members and users are fully vaccinated.

Hong Kong officials have faced an uphill battle in getting seniors to take their jabs.

Only 41 per cent of those aged between 70 and 79 have received one dose of the vaccine and only 15 per cent aged 80 and above have had theirs.

Describing the vaccination rate in Hong Kong as "still not good", Mrs Lam appealed to the public to help raise it, particularly among the elderly, if border controls are to be eased.

She added that officials would soon meet with experts advising the government on Covid-19 strategy to map out a timetable on giving a third dose to specific groups of residents.

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