Hong Kong removed a ban from Thursday on airlines found to have carried a set number of passengers infected with Covid-19 in a first major policy shift following the new administration’s pledge to review the city’s tough pandemic restrictions.
Business leaders, politicians and homesick residents alike welcomed the change, while health experts said they believed a “new balance” had been struck to minimise risks with more rigorous testing.
“Great news! Hong Kong CE John Lee’s first step to ease travel restrictions. More relaxation to come!” Executive Council convenor Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee said in a tweet on Thursday hours after the government announced the move, hinting that more measures could be relaxed.
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The government, in a statement earlier on Thursday, said the ban on individual flight routes would be cancelled with immediate effect due to the “social cost and more precise anti-epidemic measures”. Four routes which were prohibited are set to resume.
Incoming travellers would be required to take an additional nucleic acid test on day three of their arrival starting from Friday in view of the adjustment, the statement added.
“The decision is based on careful examination of relevant data, considering it is the peak season for returning overseas students,” the spokesman said. “The measure will reduce the impact on arrivals, especially for young people who are abroad so they can come home successfully to reunite with their families.”
The spokesman highlighted that imported cases accounted for less than 10 per cent of the daily tally recently. More importantly, he said, more than half of imports could be detected through polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests at the airport, and the rest uncovered in hotel quarantine.
The existing measures could already “minimise the risks of importing infections into the community”, he added.
Health officials on Thursday reported 3,028 Covid-19 cases, 172 of which were imported, and one virus-related death. The city’s overall coronavirus tally currently stands at 1,261,868 cases, with 9,407 fatalities.
The share price of Cathay Pacific Airways, the city’s flagship carrier, jumped by nearly 5 per cent from HK$8.38 to HK$8.75 following the news.
Cathay Pacific said the decision to suspend the mechanism would minimise the inconvenience for passengers returning to Hong Kong. Its spokesman also confirmed the company had been working on resuming more passenger and cargo flights.
On Wednesday, Chief Executive John Lee Ka-chiu vowed the city would not return to previous tough entry policies for arrivals.
New health minister Professor Lo Chung-mau had, prior to taking office, told the Post he was considering a “5+2” option involving five days of isolation at a quarantine hotel and two days at home for incoming travellers.
Thursday’s announcement was a marked change from the previous administration’s stance, when former leader Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor declared last month that the city would not “give in a single inch” to requests from business chambers and the international community to further relax border policies.
The policy of a five-day flight ban if at least five passengers – or 5 per cent of travellers, whichever is higher – test positive for Covid-19 upon arrival in Hong Kong has led to many airlines staying away and to at least 100 flights being banned so far this year.
In April, the government suspended a separate “place-specific” suspension mechanism imposed on nine countries including the United States and Britain, and cut down hotel quarantine to seven days from 14 if travellers tested negative for the virus between the fifth and seventh days of their stay.
In May, the government slightly eased the flight suspension rule, revealing that if the mechanism was triggered for the first time within 10 days as a result of passengers failing to comply with boarding conditions, airlines would be fined HK$20,000 and receive a warning, instead of the route being halted.
A government source said Thursday’s move was a change in favour of more precise measures which incurred less social costs.
“It’s not a shift in strategy, the strategy of ‘three reductions’ and ultimately aiming for dynamic zero remains the same,” the source said, referring to the priority of reducing deaths, severe cases and infections.
Health experts have voiced support for the flight ban suspension. Government pandemic adviser Professor David Hui Shu-cheong said the decision was rooted in data analysis conducted by the health department, including the shorter incubation period of the Omicron variant.
“The flight suspension mechanism was needed in the first place because we did not have enough quarantine hotels, and a circuit-breaker was needed to stop the overflowing in the system, but now with more quarantine capacity we could do without the mechanism,” he said.
Dr Joseph Tsang Kay-yan, co-chairman of the Medical Association’s advisory committee on communicable diseases, said he believed early detection could be ensured with an additional PCR test on the third day in the hotel.
“A new risk-benefit balance could be struck by the new government and I think replacing hotel quarantine entirely with home isolation could be considered if travellers do PCR testing every day which should be made widely available,” he said.
Respiratory medicine specialist Dr Leung Chi-chiu said an influx of returning students and residents would still be limited by the spaces at quarantine hotels, and risks were still manageable.
Local and international businesses have also welcomed the change, with Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce CEO George Leung saying the suspension is a positive step towards reopening travel.
“It will reduce uncertainties and problems for people who need to travel, and we hope quarantine rules can also be examined to allow quarantine-free travel soon,” he said.
David Graham, executive director of the British Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong, said the business community was eager to resume travel internationally and with mainland China.
“We hope to see further relaxations around the quarantine requirements as a matter of urgency. This is critical for Hong Kong to regain its reputation as an international financial and trading hub and to attract talent back to Hong Kong,” Graham said.
Tourism sector lawmaker Perry Yiu Pak-leung said the suspension was a reasonable and scientific decision.
“The mechanism has been plaguing the aviation industry, hotels and travel agencies, as well as the general public. Everyone was punished because of the schedule disruption,” Yiu said.
He also urged authorities to comprehensively review the quarantine measures for inbound travellers as soon as possible, and shorten the hotel quarantine requirements.
Permanent resident Yash Kewalramani, 30, a global sales manager for a watch and jewellery company, welcomed the move.
“Due to the flight ban, there have obviously been fewer flights flying in and out of Hong Kong and as a result, airfares have surged. Travel plans have been very difficult to execute,” said Kewalramani, who often travels around New York, Dubai and Qatar for work.
An 18-year-old student on a six-day trip in Thailand saw the move as a good sign for all measures to be lifted eventually. He said he hoped the government could look into cancelling or shortening the quarantine period as it caused travellers enormous stress and anxiety.
An international school teacher, who wished to be known as Nicholas, said the previous policy had “no scientific basis” and had caused “misery to thousands of people while making no difference to the city’s Covid-19 situation”.
Currently in India with his 12-year-old son, he said: “[The flight ban lift] is a danger I no longer have to face on my return to Hong Kong next month, but I cannot express gratitude or pleasure about the move.
“I’m still extremely frustrated that quarantine and mask-wearing are mandatory at all.”
Additional reporting by Nadia Lam and Olga Wong
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