Hong Kong seeks property tycoons' help to house Covid-19 patients

Hong Kong has a total of 80,000 hotel rooms and 11,500 rooms currently allocated for traveller quarantine across 40 hotels. PHOTO: REUTERS

HONG KONG (BLOOMBERG) - Hong Kong's leader Carrie Lam asked major property developers to find 10,000 hotel rooms for isolating people who test positive for Covid-19 as the city's biggest outbreak yet challenges its zero-tolerance approach to the virus.

On a video call on Wednesday (Feb 16), Lam urged members of the Real Estate Developers' Association to make available hotels with at least 200 rooms to house preliminary positive patients, mostly with minor Covid-19 symptoms, according to a person familiar with the talks, who asked not to be identified because the information is private.

Members at the meeting agreed to review and identify suitable properties, the association said in a statement. Hong Kong's major developers are all members of the group, including CK Asset Holdings, part of billionaire Li Ka-shing's empire, and New World Development.

A spokeswoman for Sun Hung Kai Properties, Hong Kong's largest developer, said the group has been in active talks with the government on using some hotels for patients with mild or no symptoms and would "very much like to make its contribution". The company is assessing its properties to ensure they meet safety and hygiene requirements, she said.

W Hong Kong, the Ritz-Carlton and Four Seasons are among hotels in the city operated by Sun Hung Kai. A New World spokeswoman said the company is studying the possibility of using its hotels for isolation and will fully support the government.

A government representative didn't immediately respond to a request for comment. As part of its "zero-Covid-19" strategy, Hong Kong is still trying to separate all infected people and their close contacts from the wider community, despite the strain that has placed on hospitals and other resources. While confirmed cases climbed to 4,285 on Wednesday, just 17 were critical.

After months of very few infections, Omicron shattered Hong Kong's virus-free idyll and caught authorities unprepared. The variant is more transmissible than previous strains, raising questions over how much longer the city can stick to a policy that targets elimination of the virus, in line with mainland China, especially as other parts of the world seek to live with Covid-19.

Using hotels to isolate people already in Hong Kong adds another obstacle for incoming travellers struggling to find rooms to undertake the mandatory quarantine of up to two weeks required upon arrival. Travel to the once bustling aviation hub is severely restricted and flights have dwindled. A combination of existing quarantine hotels that are being used for travellers and non-quarantine hotels would be pooled together to isolate people infected with the virus, local media reported on Wednesday.

The city has a total of 80,000 hotel rooms, according to the government. Of those, 11,500 are currently allocated for traveller quarantine across 40 hotels. That is due to increase to 12,500 rooms and 44 hotels from March 1.

Lam had said on Tuesday that hoteliers needed to agree to a collective plan and that the government could use special powers to get them to assist. A CK Asset spokeswoman said the company is studying ways to support the government's anti-Covid-19 efforts. Chinachem Group said in an emailed statement that it was assessing the feasibility making its hotels available.

Dorsett Hospitality International has allocated 2,000 rooms from 5 of its 10 hotels around Hong Kong to the government for isolating local cases, said a person familiar with the matter, who declined to be identified because the information is private. The hotel operator didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.

Pressure mounted on the Lam's administration on Wednesday, with Chinese President Xi Jinping calling on officials to take "all necessary measures" to get the outbreak under control, the Wen Wei Po and Ta Kung Pao newspapers reported, without saying where they got the information.

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