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Hong Kong to scrap hotel quarantine, easing covid rules

HONG KONG — Hong Kong announced on Friday it would scrap mandatory quarantine for travellers, easing rigid pandemic rules that have isolated the once-thriving financial hub, hit the economy and fueled an exodus of residents.

John Lee, the town leader, said that from Monday, travelers will be able to take a PCR test upon arrival, then perform medical monitoring at their hotel or home for three days via an app that assigns a color-coded health pass. During this time, they will not be able to enter bars or restaurants but will otherwise be able to move around the city. Additional coronavirus testing and an additional four days of self-monitoring will be required in the post-arrival period.

“We hope to reduce inconvenience for arriving passengers. We don’t want to go back,” Lee told a news conference, stressing the need to balance health risks with the desire for economic recovery.

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The measures are designed to reinvigorate a once freewheeling international city that has lost some of its competitive edge under some of the world’s toughest coronavirus restrictions.

But the question many are asking is whether the measures are too little, too late. Hong Kong’s population has fallen at its highest rate on record over the past year and its labor force has continued to shrink. Many of those leaving cited pandemic restrictions as well as China’s crackdown on the city’s freedoms. Meanwhile, countries like Singapore that reopened earlier have attracted businesses and tourists.

The detente comes ahead of a meeting of Chinese Communist Party leaders in Beijing, where President Xi Jinping is expected to secure a third term amid discontent over his strict ‘zero covid’ policy.

Hong Kong officials have long respected China’s goal of eradicating epidemics, but without the more extreme measures seen on the mainland. But for a long time, arriving passengers were forced to spend up to three weeks confined to a hotel room. Residents who tested positive for the coronavirus were regularly dispatched to spartan isolation rooms – with parents sometimes separated from their children. The city imposes the mandatory wearing of masks and limits the size of gatherings.

Brian Leung, an American who works in the health field, left Hong Kong in June after more than a decade in the city. He said he moved to Singapore because he relied “more on scientific decisions than political considerations” to inform his approach to life with covid-19.

“Hong Kong was a great city, but with the way it coped with the pandemic, a lot of weaknesses emerged,” Leung said, adding that some of the covid rules had been “inhumane”. “We were marked by that.”

While some other places in East Asia have been slow to reopen, Hong Kong’s severed ties to the world have been hit particularly hard due to its role as the world’s financial capital. Uncertainty over when Hong Kong would end its lockdown prompted at least 45 airlines to stop flying to what was previously one of the world’s busiest aviation hubs.

“Many airlines will keep an eye on Hong Kong, but will be hesitant to engage in the market until they see clear evidence that restrictions are being removed and, more importantly…not reintroduced.” , Willie Walsh, chief executive of the International Air Transport Association, said at a press conference this month.

Japan is reopening. But the effects of its border closure will linger.

Elsewhere in the region, Japan is set to remove entry limits on October 11 and Taiwan plans to end quarantine next month.

To kick off Hong Kong’s reopening, the city plans to host a financial forum and a rugby 7s tournament in November.

Epidemiologists, business leaders and even pro-Beijing politicians who once hailed the importance of reaching “zero covid” had called on the government to relax quarantine requirements, expressing concerns about sacrificing the city’s competitiveness for a virus that has become much less of a threat. with the advent of effective vaccines, improved treatments and increased immunity.

Moreover, the strict border rules did not prevent the virus from infiltrating. For a time, Hong Kong had the highest death rate in the developed world from covid-19 due to its failure to properly vaccinate its elderly population. The city has been reporting thousands of coronavirus cases a day for months.

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The end of quarantine may do little to boost the economy in the short term, experts have said.

Terence Chong Tai-leung, an economics professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said he didn’t expect a “huge immediate effect” because Hong Kong’s fortunes are closely tied to China’s. mainland, which remains largely closed. Without mainland tourists, Hong Kong lost a significant portion of its retail sales.

John Mullally, chief executive of recruitment consultancy Robert Walters, said Friday’s news was a “really good first step”, but predicted it could take “three years for the city to regain its pre- pandemic and the type of talent to come back”. in.” He estimated that about 15 to 17 percent of foreign and Chinese financial workers have left Hong Kong.

Gary Ng, senior economist at Natixis, said entering Hong Kong will always come with the inconveniences of mandatory testing and the use of health codes, making Singapore a better option for overseas companies looking to send talent. in Asia in the short term.

David Crawshaw in Sydney contributed to this report.

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