Hong Kong shortens Covid-19 isolation, eases testing for travellers

Currently, anyone not wearing a mask when outdoor in Hong Kong risks a S$13,600 fine if found guilty in court. PHOTO: REUTERS

HONG KONG – Hong Kong has shortened the isolation period for people who test positive for Covid-19 and their close contacts, and will require inbound travellers to take two fewer rapid tests, as the city takes another cautious step towards a full reopening.

From Friday, people infected with Covid-19 and their close contacts will be able to leave isolation if they test negative on both the fourth and fifth day, Undersecretary for Health Libby Lee said at a media briefing on Thursday. 

That is down from the current rule of seven days and will apply to everyone, including people who are unvaccinated – who previously had to spend 14 days in isolation.

The city will also require inbound travellers to conduct rapid tests for five days after their arrival, down from seven.

Hong Kong will keep a requirement for two polymerase chain reaction tests for new arrivals – upon landing and on their third day, while an outdoor mask mandate and other social distancing measures will be maintained for now.

The authorities reported 14,373 new Covid-19 infections on Thursday, the highest since late March. The latest infections included 798 imported cases.

Despite the easing of isolation rules, Dr Lee warned that there was no room for the government to further relax social distancing measures at the moment as the city’s pandemic situation was worsening.

“We are seeing an increasing trend in the daily tally, hospitalisations, death cases and severe cases, and there is no sign of easing. The pressure on the healthcare system remains high, and we must stay vigilant,” Dr Lee said.

Hong Kong has been slowly rolling back the rules that have kept it isolated from the world throughout the pandemic, battered its standing as a global financial hub and hurt economic growth. 

While Hong Kong has dismantled some of its toughest Covid-19 rules in 2022, it still maintains a raft of measures that make it a global outlier.

Inbound travellers are banned for the first three days after their entry from dining in restaurants or going to bars. And rules can sometimes be conflicting: Patrons of bars need to show proof of a negative rapid test to be allowed in, but no such requirement exists for restaurants.

They are, however, free to enter places which do not require vaccine pass checks, such as museums, theme parks and places of worship. 

As many as 240 people are permitted to attend a banquet, yet outdoor gatherings are limited to 12. 

The ongoing restrictions have seen Hong Kong struggle to attract visitors, and the city’s economy has been battered by almost three years of isolation. The government expects gross domestic product to fall 3.2 per cent for all of 2022, which would be the city’s third contraction in four years.

Still, Hong Kong stocks jumped as expectations grew that the government will further relax Covid-19 restrictions. The Hang Seng Index rose 3.4 per cent, erasing Wednesday’s sell-off, while a gauge of Chinese tech stocks trading in the city rallied 6.6 per cent. A Bloomberg gauge of Macau casino shares surged more than 10 per cent.

The upcoming changes follow a substantial easing of zero-Covid curbs in mainland China this week. China’s relaxation of rules includes reducing the scale and frequency of mass testing, allowing some patients to isolate at home, and limiting the size and length of lockdowns.

Macau relaxes arrival requirements

Macau also said on Thursday that it will relax Covid-19 test requirements for arrivals from mainland China.

The authorities told reporters at a press conference that those entering Macau from the adjoining Chinese city of Zhuhai would now be required only to display a 24-hour negative Covid-19 result.

They added that they forecast 50 per cent to 80 per cent of the local population could eventually be infected with Covid-19. BLOOMBERG, REUTERS

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