Hong Kong scraps most Covid-19 rules, though masks still mandated

The expected announcement comes after news that Hong Kong would reopen its borders with mainland China by mid-January. PHOTO: AFP

HONG KONG - Hong Kong will end some of its last major Covid-19 rules, scrapping limits on public gatherings and no longer requiring proof of vaccination for entry to some venues, in a sweeping overhaul of policies aimed at reviving its reputation as a global financial centre.

There will be no cap on public gatherings, and the city’s vaccine pass will also be scrapped, starting from Thursday, Chief Executive John Lee said on Wednesday. The city will also no longer require arrivals to undertake PCR tests, though they will be recommended to do rapid tests for five days, and close contacts of Covid-positive people will not need to quarantine, he said.

The changes are based on a high immunity level in the city, sufficient medicine, experience of handling Covid-19 among healthcare workers, an improved emergency response system and better awareness among residents, Mr Lee said.

“The city has reached a relatively high vaccination rate which builds an anti-epidemic barrier,” Mr Lee said. “Hong Kong has a sufficient amount of medicine to fight Covid-19, and healthcare workers have gained rich experience in facing the pandemic.”

“The above mentioned changes are strongly pushing Hong Kong to recover,” he added.

While the changes mean Hong Kong has done away with almost all of its major pandemic curbs – a mask mandate and daily rapid tests for schools remain – the incremental pace of loosening stands in stark contrast with the abrupt U-turn on Covid Zero in mainland China.

The world’s second-biggest economy is set to emerge from almost three years of self-imposed global isolation early next month, after announcing an end to quarantine for inbound travellers, and no testing after arrival from Jan 8. It is also set to resume issuing Hong Kong travel permits and reopen express checkpoints on the border, buoying the outlook for the financial hub that’s struggled to maintain its status as a global financial centre amid strict coronavirus curbs. The change, though, coincides with a massive outbreak across the country following the end of Covid Zero.

Hong Kong is set to reopen the border with mainland China on Jan 10 at the earliest, with priority for travel to the city given to those with business and family needs, the South China Morning Post reported, citing people it did not identify.

Moves to ease some of Hong Kong’s final virus curbs and reopen with the mainland would come despite an uptick in local infections and warnings about the strain being put on the healthcare system from both Covid-19 and influenza. The city reported more than 18,000 Covid-19 cases a day during the Christmas period, more than doubling from a month ago, and the number of patients in critical and serious condition is rising.

Some of the city’s public hospitals reported wait times of over eight hours in their emergency departments during the four-day holiday period, though that had declined to one to four hours on Wednesday.

A health official last week asked people with mild Covid-19 symptoms to consider using private medical services. The SCMP also reported that Hong Kong’s local pharmacies are running out of common antipyretics.

On Wednesday, Hong Kong authorities asked Japan to remove restrictions on direct flights from the city, which were imposed following the explosion of coronavirus cases in mainland China. The city deployed similar curbs during its own fight against Covid-19, including rapid bans on airlines for carrying virus-positive passengers and travel restrictions for nations with major outbreaks.

Japan became one of the first countries to impose China-specific travel restrictions this week as infections surged across the mainland following the dismantling of Beijing’s zero-Covid strategy. They include restricting direct flights from Hong Kong to four airports – Tokyo’s Narita and Haneda, Kansai in Osaka and Nagoya’s Chubu.

Hong Kong’s transport department on Wednesday said it was “greatly disappointed by Japanese authorities’ hasty decision during the peak tourist season”.

The department said it had contacted the Japanese consulate in Hong Kong to “solemnly request” a reversal of the decision – which takes effect from Friday. It added that the affected airlines have been told they can still fly empty planes to the restricted airports to pick up any stranded passengers in the coming days.

From Friday, Japan will also require on-arrival virus tests for passengers from China, but that will not apply to travellers from Hong Kong and Macau.

Travel has surged among Hong Kongers in recent months as they clamour to take holidays and visit loved ones overseas.

In May this year, just 700 Hong Kong arrivals were recorded at airports in Japan. But by November, that number had leapt to 83,000. AFP, BLOOMBERG

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