Hong Kong to ease curbs even with hundreds of daily Covid-19 cases

Hong Kong would roll back social distancing measures on May 19 as previously announced, said Chief Executive Carrie Lam. PHOTO: AFP

HONG KONG (BLOOMBERG) - Hong Kong will proceed with relaxing virus curbs despite recording hundreds of cases a day, as the city's Covid policy drifts farther from Beijing's zero-tolerance approach.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam on Tuesday (May 17) said the city would roll back social distancing measures on May 19 as previously announced, including opening bars and extending the hours for restaurants to serve customers.

"It is reasonable to have 200 to 300 cases each day," Mrs Lam said at a regular weekly briefing. "We don't need to worry too much. It is also our assessment that we can safely enter the second phase of easing social distancing measures."

From Thursday, dining-in at restaurants will be extended to midnight, bars will be permitted to open until 2am and mask requirements for indoor exercise will be lifted. 

Mrs Lam continued to cite reopening the border with mainland China as one of her government's top priorities, without saying how that would happen.

Shanghai, China's most-populous city and one of the country's major economic engines, is slowly exiting a lockdown that confined 25 million people to their homes for six weeks as President Xi Jinping sticks with a Covid Zero policy.

The trigger for easing in Shanghai was reporting zero infections outside the city's extensive quarantine programme.

That's a far cry from the situation in Hong Kong, where hundreds of new cases are still reported across the city each day.

Instead, Hong Kong officials are focusing on driving up the city’s vaccination rate to prevent a spike in serious illness that could overwhelm hospitals.  

By the end of this month, all eligible residents will need to have had three jabs to use the city’s Vaccine Pass, a requirement to enter restaurants and many public places.  

The May 31 deadline was moved up from June 30, as local officials push to boost the city’s vaccination rate.

Just over half of the city’s eligible residents have received their third jab, according to government records.  

Hong Kong still lags much of the world in its return to normalcy, with the city maintaining mandatory seven-day hotel quarantines for vaccinated incoming travelers.  

Mr Filippo Gori, JPMorgan Chase & Co.’s chief executive officer for Asia-Pacific, told Bloomberg TV in an interview Tuesday it was important that Hong Kong "keeps on moving on the relaxation process," citing border controls as the next measure officials should ease.  

"If we could have home quarantine," he said, "from a business standpoint, it would make an enormous difference because it would remove a lot of stress." 

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