Hong Kong wants to relax COVID-19 rules like mandatory hotel quarantine that have made travel difficult for nearly three years, Chief Executive John Lee said Tuesday, as mainland officials signaled their approval.
The number of infections in the Asian financial hub has fallen to about 6,000 a day, creating room to reconsider the measures that have crimped the city’s competitiveness, Lee told reporters at a weekly briefing.
Hotel quarantine will be replaced with seven days of home health monitoring, the South China Morning Post reported, though it said the change won’t be announced until all the details have been determined.
The plans appear to have been blessed by leaders in mainland China, despite their adherence to a zero-tolerance approach to the virus.
China supports Hong Kong’s efforts to have close, extensive contact with the rest of the world and sees no problem with adjusting its rules, Huang Liuquan, deputy director of China’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, said at a separate briefing in Beijing.
Hong Kong’s residents have been anticipating a reduction in the travel curbs, including hotel quarantine requirements and pre-flight PCR testing, as a series of high-profile international events are slated to begin in late October.
Visitors that the city’s leaders want to attract have said they wouldn’t come if the restrictions were too harsh.
“We know for the epidemic control, there’s impact on connectivity to the world,” Lee said. “We want to have the maximum connectivity to the world and to reduce inconvenience related to quarantine rules. We are orderly working towards that direction.”
Lee has taken a number of steps to make travel less of a high-stakes gamble since being sworn into office on July 1.
He ended some flight bans that could unpredictably derail travel, slashed hotel quarantine stays, announced a plan to cease ordering people into government-run isolation facilities and stopped taking the temperatures of transit passengers as they passed through the city’s airport.
The shift has come in contrast to the doubling down by President Xi Jinping on the zero-tolerance approach in China, and Lee is trying to steer the city through reopening to the rest of the world without becoming a vector for spreading infection to the mainland.
Hong Kong remains a top source of travel flow into the world’s second largest economy, even with limits on the number of people allowed to cross the border daily, and seven days of hotel quarantine required on the China side.
To help cement ties, he has proposed a reverse quarantine mechanism that would boost travel to the mainland by allowing visitors to isolate in Hong Kong and then enter China quarantine-free. China, meanwhile, has shown no sign of easing its COVID-19 rules, which remain among the strictest in the world. Leaders have touted the low death rate in the world’s most populous country.
No changes in China are expected until after the Communist Party congress in mid-October, when Xi is expected to get a precedent-breaking third term in office.
Hong Kong is trailing the reopening measures that have been put in place this year by all of its major financial rivals, including New York, London and, most importantly in the region, Singapore. Many expatriate workers have left the city for Singapore, which started its reopening in the spring and stuck with it even as case counts rebounded.
Singapore’s quick reversion to pre-pandemic life has been watched with envy and angst by Hong Kong residents, especially as mainstay events the two cities once shared, like the Rugby Sevens tournament and the Standard Chartered marathon, return without incident in the Southeast Asian state.
Hong Kong will do its best not to roll back any of its recent easing initiatives, Lee said, acknowledging how important it is for Hong Kong to remain competitive.
“We want to be connected with the different places in the world,” Lee said. “We would like to have an orderly opening up.”
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