As the world reopens for business and leisure travel, local officials are sticking to their zero-Covid strategy.
There’s now a rough estimate for when Hong Kong will no longer require incoming travelers to spend up to 21 days confined to a hotel room. Lam Ching-choi, a high-level government adviser and member of the territory’s cabinet, or Executive Council, told Bloomberg on Monday that restrictions would be eased only after restoring quarantine-free travel with Mainland China and raising the vaccination rate among the elderly. He said it would likely take another six months to reach the desired inoculation levels for Hong Kong to safely reopen to the world.
A paltry 17 percent of residents aged 80 and above have received at least one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine; the low uptake has been attributed to vaccine hesitancy stemming from fears over potential side-effects. Another factor is a general lack of urgency as the territory has been so successful at keeping out the virus; Hong Kong has gone more than five months without local transmission, and may well be the only major city in the world that has not been afflicted by a Delta-driven outbreak.
Frustration has been mounting among members of the local and expat business community, who say that tough coronavirus rules affect the city’s long-term viability as a global financial center. But health experts believe it is premature for the territory to open up and live with the virus. Dr. Siddharth Sridhar, a clinical virologist at the University of Hong Kong, recently wrote on social media that “Hong Kong doesn’t have any viable option other than its current course … the low vaccination rate in [the] elderly means that any Singapore-style reopening is going to very quickly overwhelm intensive care facilities.”
Hong Kong’s government is focusing its efforts on a gradual border reopening with Mainland China, and has recently tightened entry rules to bring them more in line with those set out by Beijing. Nearly all quarantine exemptions, including those for diplomats and senior business figures, have been removed, and Covid-positive patients are now required to undergo 14 days in managed isolation after being discharged from hospital.
Yesterday, the South China Morning Post reported that a major breakthrough had been reached between authorities in Hong Kong and Mainland China on the resumption of quarantine-free travel, although an air corridor is not yet on the cards. A pilot program in mid-December will allow small numbers of travelers into neighboring Guangdong province via land checkpoints, and the scheme will be expanded in February with the aim of a full reopening by June 2022 at the latest.