Hong Kong will lift a ban on flights from nine countries and reduce hotel quarantine alongside a “roadmap” towards eased restrictions that suggest a departure from the territory’s zero-Covid policy, its leader has announced.
From 1 April, fully vaccinated Hong Kong residents who have received a negative PCR test will be allowed to enter on flights from the UK, Australia, Canada, France, India, Nepal, Pakistan, the Philippines and the US. Arrivals have to undergo seven days’ hotel quarantine, down from 14 previously.
The “circuit breaker flight ban” was no longer necessary for those nine countries because the situations there were “no worse” than that in Hong Kong, the chief executive, Carrie Lam, told the media on Monday, acknowledging the anxiety restrictions had caused to Hongkongers stranded overseas.
Hong Kong has maintained some of the world’s strictest border rules, blocking non-residents from entry, enforcing 21-day quarantines, and punitively banning airlines for carrying Covid-positive passengers.
Lam also announced social restrictions on gathering limits, mask-wearing, and business and venue operations would begin easing in three phases from 20 April. Schools will resume face-to-face classes from 19 April, and plans for a controversial mandatory mass testing rollout were suspended, citing advice from mainland experts.
Lam emphasised the roadmap was subject to change, but ruled out anything being relaxed earlier than stated.
“People may be desensitised to Covid positive numbers,” she said. “I would urge the members of the public to be more patient with this timetable and roadmap. As long as the trend is coming down in four weeks’ time we should be able to resume normal life.”
The roadmap echoes those put in place by other countries as they transitioned away from harsh restrictions to living with the virus, often after being overwhelmed by an Omicron outbreak. Hong Kong has been committed to a “dynamic zero” policy of eliminating each outbreak as it occurs, but had begun introducing mitigation strategies as infections and fatalities rose.
On Monday, Lam would not say if her announcement was an admission that Hong Kong would have to live with the virus, telling reporters not to “draw any conclusions”.
Prof Alexandra Martiniuk, an epidemiologist at the University of Sydney, said the new policy setting “does look as though it’s signalling to move away from a Covid- zero or a dynamic-zero aim”.
Prof Martiniuk said no country so far had experienced a large Omicron wave and completely contained it. “Covid-zero becomes extremely difficult to maintain once it’s out of the bag in a large way,” she said.
“Keeping public health protections in place but letting go of the concept of Covid-zero does sound like where Hong Kong is going.”
The government of mainland China – which is also battling its own, smaller Omicron outbreak – has previously said Hong Kong must maintain a Covid-zero policy before it would reopen the border between them. Hong Kong’s government had prioritised reopening to the mainland over the rest of the world, but on Monday, Lam said Hong Kong would always have to take into account “connectivity with the outside world” as well as with the mainland.
Health authorities say the city is past the peak of an Omicron outbreak that infected at least 1 million people, but potentially half the population, overwhelming hospitals. More than 5,000 people have died. The government did not put the city under lockdown, but instead introduced or reintroduced a range of social restrictions, including some that sparked confusion and frustrating, such as the closure of beaches.
The restrictions have put pressure on residents, who are leaving in droves. Net departures have surpassed 54,000 for this month, after 71,000 in February, Reuters reported.
Kenneth Tang, a 24-year old project executive, said he and his friends had grown frustrated and sometimes very distressed under Hong Kong’s restrictions and the devastating outbreak.
“The impact in my personal life is serious, the psychological impact has affected my body. Hongkongers have to find ways to save themselves,” he said.
“I think we should take references from other countries. It’s not possible to have Covid zero now,” he said. “So we should see what the UK, Australia, and Canada do. We can do a similar solution to them. I think it is very important to lift the flight bans, and they should help to maintain our mental health as soon as possible.”
Additional reporting by Chi Hui Lin and Xiaoqian Zhu