HK to scrap most quarantine exemptions to ensure reopening with mainland: Carrie Lam

Hong Kong will soon announce arrangements to remove exemptions that allow some people to skip mandatory hotel quarantine stays. PHOTO: AFP

HONG KONG - The Hong Kong government has decided to tighten loopholes in existing quarantine rules for overseas and mainland travellers despite increasing frustrations, particularly in the business community, with the city's tough on-arrival rules.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam said on Tuesday (Oct 26) that her government would soon remove most exemptions that currently allow some groups to skip mandatory hotel quarantine stays of up to 21 days.

The move comes as Hong Kong officials continue to pursue the aim of reopening the territory's borders with the mainland even though Covid-19 cases have flared up more often despite tough rules and contact tracing.

"We will only leave those relating to emergency services or services relating to the everyday supply or logistics of Hong Kong, say for example cross-boundary truck drivers, (untouched)," said Mrs Lam.

Currently, exemptions are made for some groups including airline crew who have to travel between the mainland, Taiwan and Macau, government officials on official business, construction workers who work on the mainland, and directors of Hong Kong-listed firms carrying out activities recognised by the authorities.

Mrs Lam said there have been proposals to align Hong Kong's anti-epidemic measures more closely to that of the mainland.

"We are caught in a sort of a dilemma because in order to resume some quarantine-free travel with the mainland, we have to ensure that our anti-Covid-19 practices are more in line with the mainland practices so that the mainland authorities have the level of confidence to enable Hong Kong people to go to the mainland, without being subject to the 14-day plus seven-day quarantine," said Mrs Lam.

The control of imported cases is the backbone of that strategy, she added.

If Hong Kong were to loosen its border controls for arrivals from places that adopt the endemic approach, the chances of resuming travel with the mainland would be lowered, she said.

In the latest indication of growing public disquiet with the government's continuing hard line approach, the Asia Securities Industry & Financial Markets Association, has said that Hong Kong's status as a financial centre, its broader economic recovery and competitiveness are at risk.

The association, in a letter to Financial Secretary Paul Chan over the weekend, said that a poll found that almost half of global banks and asset managers are now considering moving staff and functions out of Hong Kong.

In the letter, the association urged the government to phase out quarantine rules, ease restrictions on travel along key corridors to the United States, Europe and United Kingdom, where it said many multinational headquarters were located. It also called for a clear timeline for the city's reopening and for the government to detail interim goals and objectives.

But Mrs Lam on Tuesday said that she was not worried about the quarantine measures damaging the city's reputation as a global financial hub.

She said: "I can only say to those representing the financial sector that we have to look at it in context. The context is that Hong Kong's primary advantage lies in being the gateway to the mainland. If businesses established in Hong Kong could not go to the mainland, I think it would significantly reduce the attraction of Hong Kong as an international business hub and an international financial centre."

Hong Kong's zero-Covid approach, similar to the mainland and Macau, have kept Covid-19 cases low in the city. The government has moved cautiously in easing or tweaking social distancing measures. Anyone wanting to exercise in a gym, for instance, without donning a mask can do so only if all staff members and users have been vaccinated. Diners and restaurants can open till 2am if staff and customers are vaccinated.

On Tuesday, the territory reported three imported Covid-19 cases, bringing the total number of confirmed cases to more than 12,300 and 213 deaths - among the lowest in the world.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.