Hong Kong lawmaker calls for a full lockdown to spare business

Hong Kong is now experiencing its worst outbreak of the pandemic, with new infections now in the thousands each day. PHOTO: REUTERS

HONG KONG/SYDNEY (BLOOMBERG) - Hong Kong should impose a strict, city-wide lockdown for nine days to rein in its snowballing Covid-19 outbreak rather than prolong social-distancing restrictions that are strangling business, lawmaker Michael Tien said.

All non-essential businesses would be shuttered and residents tested three times over the lockdown period, Tien, a pro-China lawmaker in the city's Legislative Council and a Hong Kong deputy to China's National People's Congress, said in an interview with Bloomberg Television on Wednesday (Feb 23).

Tien is the first legislator to call so prominently for a mainland-style lockdown, with Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam repeatedly dismissing the prospect, instead saying the city will engage in a mass testing effort and may consider localised stay-at-home orders.

Lam unveiled details late on Tuesday of a plan to test the city's 7.4 million residents three times in March, and to extend social-distancing curbs - including limits on restaurant dining and family gatherings - until at least mid-April.

Beijing, which has successfully contained virus flareups with strict lockdowns in places like Xi'an, has backed a full lockdown in its talks with Hong Kong, people familiar with the matter have told Bloomberg News, saying it's more effective at containing surging virus cases in a shorter period of time.

After a long period of relatively few cases, Hong Kong is now experiencing its worst outbreak of the pandemic, with new infections now in the thousands each day. The flareup caught officials unawares and is challenging the city's zero-tolerance approach to the virus.

Both Hong Kong and the mainland continue to pursue the "zero-Covid-19" strategy, which was successful at walling out the virus in the initial stage of the pandemic with its strict border curbs, mandatory quarantines and target of eliminating cases. But it has been outfoxed by more transmissible variants such as Omicron, and is leaving China increasingly isolated as other parts of the world start to live alongside Covid-19.

Hong Kong is expected to announce a raft of support for businesses in its budget on Wednesday, a move that will likely drive the government to its fourth deficit in a row in the coming fiscal year, the longest period of shortfalls in almost a decade.

More than two years of stop-start restrictions, including curbs on the number of people who can dine out at restaurants, have hit the economy, with banks including Morgan Stanley downgrading the city's growth forecasts.

The ongoing isolation - Hong Kong drastically limits flights into the city and is barring airlines that have positive Covid-19 cases - is damaging its reputation as Asia's pre-eminent financial hub, with some companies relocating offices and personnel to Singapore.

The call marks a change in position for Tien, who told Bloomberg last week that a lockdown of the city would hit the economy and may not be effective at eradicating the outbreak if it isn't paired with adequate facilities to isolate cases and track people's movements. Tien reiterated on Wednesday his call for quarantine capacity to be built up.

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