The isolation period for those arriving from high-risk countries will be reduced from 21 days to 14 days.
While it remains an exception in a world that is increasingly learning to live with Covid-19, Hong Kong is preparing to roll back its quarantine measures. At a press conference on Thursday evening, the territory’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam announced that from February 5, residents returning from 162 high-risk countries and territories would be eligible to isolate for 14 days in a hotel — down from the current requirement of 21 days — followed by seven days of self-monitoring.
Health officials agreed to cut quarantines by a week given the Omicron variant’s relatively short incubation period, but chose to extend the existing flight ban on eight countries including Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States until at least February 18. However, this falls short of the demands of business leaders, who argue that 14 days is too long and would hurt the city’s competitiveness.
The development comes a day after a draft internal report by the city’s European Chamber of Commerce warned that continued restrictions in pursuit of Covid-elimination would result in an exodus of foreign talent that may become “the largest that Hong Kong has ever seen, and one of the largest in absolute terms from any city in the region in recent history.” The report outlined a scenario in which Hong Kong would not reopen to the world until 2024, making it increasingly likely that multinational firms and staff would relocate en masse to rival financial hubs such as Singapore and Seoul.
Lam acknowledged the business community preferred a quarantine period of just seven days or the complete removal of mandatory isolation, but said a full reopening would be a “very dangerous move” for Hong Kong, especially given the lower vaccination rate among the elderly. The leader said a change in what she called the “dynamic zero” Covid strategy would only happen when the vaccination rate reached 90 percent. As of January 27, just under 72 percent of Hong Kong’s population has received at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine, while 64 percent are fully inoculated.
On Thursday, the territory logged a record number of new Covid-19 infections since the pandemic began. The bulk of those 164 reported cases were locally transmitted, including a dozen of unknown origin. Hong Kong’s growing outbreak involves clusters of both the Omicron and Delta variants, and Lam said citywide social distancing restrictions would be extended for another two weeks until February 17, with schools not reopening for face-to-face classes until February 21.