HK lifts flight bans, cuts quarantine for arrivals as Covid-19 cases drop

Hong Kong has imposed flight bans on nine countries, including the US, Britain and Australia. PHOTO: REUTERS

HONG KONG - It will be easier to travel or return to Hong Kong after Chief Executive Carrie Lam announced on Monday (March 21) the lifting of flight bans and recalibrated quarantine arrangements for inbound visitors.

The moves come as daily infections drop. Health officials on Monday reported 14,000 cases, the third straight day where infections were below 20,000 in the past three weeks.

From April 1, the current flight ban on nine countries – Australia, Britain, Canada, France, India, Nepal, Pakistan, the Philippines and the United States – will be lifted.

On quarantine arrangements, Mrs Lam said, for a start, all Hong Kong residents with two shots of the vaccine will be allowed to return to the city, provided they serve at least seven days in quarantine in a designated hotel and self-monitor at home for another seven days. 

Previously, vaccinated residents had to serve 14 days in a quarantine hotel. 

Those who test positive for Covid-19 at the airport will have to serve 14 days in quarantine, during which they have to undergo frequent testing.

But if the result of the test is negative on day five of the quarantine, the visitor can leave the hotel earlier. 

“If a visitor chooses to leave early, he must carry out self-surveillance in the next seven days, and on day 12, he must complete a PCR (polymerase chain reaction) test at a community testing centre to confirm he wasn’t infected at the quarantine hotel during the quarantine period,” said Mrs Lam.

She added that those who choose not to leave early will have to do a PCR test on day 12 of the quarantine and can leave after 14 days of hotel isolation only if they test negative. 

Netizens welcomed the shorter mandatory quarantine, with Mr Eric Zheng, 31, among those who cheered the announcement. He described the news as "great" and said that "people can now make travel plans".

The Straits Times understands Singapore Airlines has been banned from flying passengers to Hong Kong for two weeks from March 17 to 30 after Covid-19 cases were detected among some of its passengers. Flights from Hong Kong to Singapore are not affected. 

The carrier’s Singapore to Hong Kong flights were last banned from Feb 16 to March 1. 

As for the widely expected mass testing, Mrs Lam said “we have decided to hold this in abeyance”. 

“When the conditions are right, we will consider whether we will be implementing the compulsory universal testing,” she said.

Face-to-face classes could resume as soon as April 19, with kindergartens as well as primary and international schools to start first. 

From April 21, most social distancing measures will be eased over a period of three months. 

In the first phase, venues like sports centres, museums and libraries will reopen, group gatherings will be capped at four people and tables in eateries will sit up to four. Dining in at eateries will be extended till 10pm from the current 6pm. 

In the second phase, public gatherings will expand to eight, beaches will reopen, jogging and hiking will not require mask wearing and bars and pubs will reopen. Dining in will be further extended to midnight.

In the third phase, the rules will be further relaxed and only the basics such as mask wearing and use of the contact tracing LeaveHomeSafe app will be required. 

On Sunday, Mrs Lam said she would like to give the public an idea on what the anti-epidemic policies will look like after April 20, when the existing measures, where public gatherings are capped at two and private gatherings are limited to two households, expire.

This comes a month after she officially announced plans for mass testing of Hong Kong’s entire 7.4 million population, originally expected in March.

But the plans were shelved as daily infections spiked and the government, taking the advice of mainland officials sent to Hong Kong to help with the situation, made a U-turn almost two weeks ago to focus on preventing elderly deaths and severe cases.

The fifth wave that began at end-December has logged more than 5,900 fatalities, spanning the ages of 11 months to 112 years old. 

Residents of elderly care homes accounted for 60 per cent of these deaths, and almost 90 per cent of fatalities in the fifth wave did not have two jabs.

Hong Kong has recorded 1.05 million cases and more than 6,100 deaths in total.

Of the total deaths, about 3,800 patients, or 66 per cent, were over the age of 80. Of this age group, 74 per cent were unvaccinated.

On Sunday, Mrs Lam said about 70 per cent of those aged 70 or above have been inoculated, leaving about 280,000 seniors who have yet to receive their first shot. 

But the government will not order the city’s seniors to get their jabs, she added. 

Officials have found it hard to persuade seniors to do so as most fear adverse effects from vaccination, including possible fatality.

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