Hong Kong lifts international travel quarantine after more than 900 days

According to the new rules that will come into force from September 26, arriving passengers will have to undergo a three-day self-check on arrival.

Hong Kong’s government has faced intense pressure from its business community and some public health officials to ease restrictions amid concerns about a troubled economy, an exodus of foreigners and the financial hub once known as “Asia’s World City” being left behind. the rest of the world withdrew from the pandemic.

Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee said at an expected news conference on Friday that the number of infections in the city has stabilized, allowing for the lifting of quarantine.

“We hope to give Hong Kong the greatest opportunity to reconnect and revive our economy,” Lee said.

Passengers who arrive will be able to do a three-day self-check at home or wherever they want. During this time they will be able to go outside but they will be restricted from certain places.

Arrivals will not be required to provide a negative PCR test before boarding a plane. However, they must provide a negative rapid antigen test (RAT) 24 hours before packaging.

During the three-day monitoring period, people will be assigned an amber color according to the city’s digital health code, which will prevent them from entering bars or restaurants.

They will have to do PCR tests 2, 4 and 6 days after arrival, and the RAT test every day for seven days after arrival.

The policy change comes after Japan announced it would reopen its borders from Oct. 11 and Taiwan said it plans to lift its mandatory quarantine on Oct. 13 if the island has passed the peak of the latest Omicron BA-5 outbreak.

Questions about when the city would loosen restrictions have become increasingly prominent as two major international events, the Hong Kong Sevens rugby tournament and a world banking conference, were scheduled for November and seen as a way to revitalize the blighted city. in recent years, due to pro-democracy protests and Beijing’s resulting crackdown on civil liberties.
While several governments introduced border controls after the outbreak of the pandemic, most have since rolled back the measures, including Singapore, which competes with Hong Kong to attract foreign business and talent.
But unlike other global hotspots, Hong Kong’s Covid-19 policies have long been seen as closely linked to mainland China, where Beijing continues to maintain a strict zero-Covid policy and border quarantines, with no signs of easing, as infection control remains at a premium. because priority

Calls to loosen international border controls under Lee’s predecessor Carrie Lam, who stepped down on June 30, have been hampered by a competing demand to open quarantine-free travel to the mainland – a proposal that has yet to materialize.

A public sign of Beijing’s support for Hong Kong’s new policy path came on September 20, when Huang Liuquan, deputy head of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Bureau, said the Hong Kong government was coordinating its policies according to its local situation and had made adjustments. it should not be “over-interpreted”.

While the new policy on international arrivals to Hong Kong is not a harbinger of an immediate change in mainland policy, it is a sign of the different conditions on each side of the border.

Although the city kept local cases to a minimum during the first two years of the pandemic, Hong Kong experienced an explosive outbreak of the highly infectious Omicron variant earlier this year and has not since revived its zero-Covid stance. Instead, the city continues to report hundreds to thousands of cases each day. According to official records, more than 1.7 million cases have been reported in the city of 7.4 million, although experts believe the actual number is higher.

In mainland China, by contrast, the majority of the country has not yet been exposed to the virus – putting its population at a deficit in terms of natural immunity to the infection, a concern for health officials who fear the strain. widespread occurrence in the health care system.

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Hong Kong’s new measures come more than 900 days after the city first imposed border restrictions in March 2020 and almost two years after it imposed a hotel quarantine in December 2020. At the longest, the quarantine was extended to 21 days. Travelers who tested positive during quarantine were taken to designated facilities, sometimes government-run camps.

The program became increasingly controversial among the public after Covid-19 vaccines became available, local case numbers rose and places with similar systems like New Zealand and Australia opened their borders.

The shortage of available hotel rooms and limited flights this summer sparked public outrage that travelers risked being stranded outside the city until a free room opened up if the itinerary was interrupted, for example by catching Covid-19 or a flight being rescheduled.

Some restrictions have been eased in recent months. In May non-Hong Kong residents were allowed to enter the city from abroad for the first time in more than two years, and a scheme that halted some flights with Covid-positive passengers was suspended in July.

Earlier this summer, the Lee administration reduced the quarantine from one week to three days, plus an additional four days of health care, during which arrivals are barred from bars, gyms and restaurants.

Hotel quarantine and pre-flight testing were seen as remaining major barriers to travel to the city, however doubts remain as to what role the new plan will play in reviving the city’s once vibrant tourism industry.