Hong Kong leader tests positive for Covid-19 after Apec summit

Mr John Lee will work from home during the isolation period. PHOTO: REUTERS

HONG KONG – Hong Kong’s Chief Executive John Lee tested positive for Covid-19 shortly after returning from the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) forum in Thailand, where he met Chinese President Xi Jinping and other world leaders.

“The Chief Executive is undergoing quarantine in accordance with the guidelines provided by the Centre for Health Protection,” said a government statement on Monday. He will work from home during the isolation period, according to the statement.

Mr Lee was found to be positive for the coronavirus after his plane landed at Hong Kong’s airport from Bangkok, where the Apec summit was held.

Apart from President Xi, Mr Lee had meetings with Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, Indonesian President Joko Widodo and Vietnamese President Nguyen Xuan Phuc.

He also met the Chinese Ambassador to Thailand, Mr Han Zhiqiang, and Thai Deputy Prime Minister Supattanapong Punmeechaow.

The Apec summit was Mr Lee’s first overseas trip since the pandemic began nearly three years ago, as well as his first since taking office as Hong Kong’s chief executive in July.

His positive test comes amid a rising caseload in Hong Kong, which has eased back from the strict zero-Covid-19 strategy of the first two years of the pandemic but has not yet fully decided to live with the virus. The city reported 7,763 new infections on Sunday and 13 deaths.

Mr Lee’s visit to Thailand marked his first trip overseas to promote the city’s standing as a global financial centre and attract investment after years of pandemic isolation. Hong Kong’s economy is likely to end the year in contraction for the third time in four years, as economists slashed their gross domestic product forecasts to a 3 per cent decline for 2022, according to the latest Bloomberg survey.

The prominent gathering created a conundrum for Mr Lee and Mr Xi – leaders who continue to try to curb Covid-19, even as the rest of the world has accepted it as endemic. A range of restrictions are in place in China and Hong Kong, particularly in high-risk settings, but infections have continued to rise. 

The two men had multiple maskless encounters at Apec last week. They stood shoulder to shoulder at the gala dinner last Thursday, and sat side by side during a closed-door meeting the next day.

Mr Xi has not been seen in public since returning from Apec and the Group of 20 summit in Bali, in line with his previous absences. With Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel scheduled to visit China from Thursday, Mr Xi’s next public appearance will be closely watched for a break from current protocol and a signal of a more relaxed approach to his flagship Covid Zero policy.

Mr Lee’s infection highlights the risk they face while re-engaging with the world. China continues to implement its zero-Covid-19 policies to stamp out the coronavirus, including shutting down some shopping malls in Beijing as the capital city has emerged as one hot spot in China’s latest outbreak.

Hong Kong has steadily rolled back its virus curbs since the summer in a bid to salvage its status as a finance hub. The city scrapped hotel quarantine in September, has tolerated thousands of daily community infections, and recently returned to hosting international events, such as the Rugby Sevens and the Global Financial Leaders’ Investment Summit. Masks, however, are still required, even outdoors. BLOOMBERG, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

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