As the region begins to reopen, Hong Kong is stuck in a strict quarantine system

Hong Kong has identified itself as the “World City of Asia” for two decades, but it could soon become the most isolated in the region as it looks set to close effectively next year, despite easing travel bans by its regional rivals.

Chinese territorial authorities have yet to outline a plan to relax the strict quarantine rules that have virtually suspended international travel. Other countries in the region, including Singapore, Australia, New Zealand and Thailand, are beginning to abandon it, but they are committed to a “zero-covid” policy.

Singapore last week introduced quarantine-free travel with 10 countries after nearly 21 months of closed borders. Meanwhile, all arrivals in Hong Kong must be segregated for two or three weeks in a hotel at their own expense under one of the world’s toughest quarantine rules, which has been in place since 2020.

The policy is expected to last until 2022 – probably after the Chinese Communist Party’s congress in November, according to a Chinese government official – and authorities have offered no timeline for relaxing the rules.

Hong Kong’s refusal to change its strategy has raised new questions from the international business community about the city’s status as a global financial hub and the effectiveness of its quarantine policy.

“The mood is getting darker,” said Tara Joseph, president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong. “People are losing sight of their families, which is becoming very difficult on a personal level and losing clients, which is becoming difficult for businesses.”

Ben Kauling, an epidemiologist at the University of Hong Kong who is serving a 21-day quarantine“It doesn’t make sense to me to maintain the measure for three weeks, but if we continue on the zero-cove path, we will have to face it for a year or more,” he said.

‘Mainland More Important’

The Hong Kong government has made it clear that its priority is to reopen the border with mainland China before easing travel restrictions for arrivals from other parts of the world.

“Of course international travel and international business are important to us, but … the mainland is more important,” Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, said this month.

This focus is expected to delay any move to make international travel easier because of Beijing’s own strict zero-cove strategy, and the border is unlikely to open soon. Authorities in the southern provinces of Beijing and Guangzhou, across the border from Hong Kong, have instructed the region to improve its coronavirus control before making a decision.

Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam says the city’s mainland is focused on reopening the Chinese border.

A significant outbreak in China or Hong Kong would also be politically sensitive, as Beijing prepares to host the Winter Olympics in February and President Xi Jinping seeks to secure a third term in power by the end of next year. Hong Kong will also hold a leadership election in March and July will mark the 25th anniversary of the handover from British rule to Chinese rule.

“We are effectively deciding that Hong Kong will become a Chinese city,” said the chief executive of Asia-Pacific, a 60 billion asset manager.

Commercially the border is expected to reopen but has called on the government to provide a timeline.

“Any border would be great to start opening,” said Frederick Golob, chair of the European Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong, who warned Lam that strict quarantine rules threatened Hong Kong’s reputation as a global financial center.

Companies have been “extremely resilient, but of course [the travel restrictions] The fuel for decision-making against Hong Kong as a place to do business, ”Golob added.

“It would be a huge step forward,” said an executive at Wall Street Investment Bank. “That’s where our clients are. Not being able to conduct business trips to the mainland is not sustainable. “

Businesses and residents look elsewhere

According to business lobby groups, restrictions have already prompted some multinationals to transfer certain personnel and operations.

In May, AmCham said 42 percent of its members planned to leave the city due to uncertainty amid the epidemic and as a result of Beijing’s comprehensive national security law, which was imposed on the city in 2019 after pro-democracy protests.

Hong Kong’s population fell 1.2 percent last year, the biggest decline since the government began keeping records in the 1960s. The city’s education department cited out-of-town traffic as one of the reasons when it reported that enrollment in primary schools dropped by 6 percent and secondary by about 4 percent this year.

“Before the pre-coup and protest, I used to say we were a Hong Kong-based family,” said a British finance executive who relocated to Singapore this summer. “But that anchor is no more.”

“The possibility of travel means we get to see it [Singapore] Better than Hong Kong at the moment, ”he added, adding that despite the covidial-related limitations in socialization in city-states, where no more than two people can meet in a public place. In contrast, in Hong Kong, most daily activities work as usual.

Health experts questioned the 21-day quarantine

Hong Kong did not impose any lockdowns during the epidemic, with 12,312 cases out of a population of 7 million as of October 21 and only 213 deaths. About 65 percent of the city’s total population has been fully vaccinated, although only 16 percent of these include people over the age of 80.

Hong Kong’s Food and Health Secretary Sophia Chan has defended the city’s tough approach.

“We keep a close eye on people’s feelings when adjusting control systems,” he said. “In the case of adopting a zero-covid strategy. . .[the]The government gives the highest priority to the health of the people and adjusts border control and social distance measures to keep pace with the epidemic. “

But now questions are being raised about the effectiveness of the 21-day quarantine policy, which applies to 25 countries and applies to immunized arrivals, including children.

The World Health Organization recommends that the virus have an incubation period of 14 days, and some medical professionals say that the third week in isolation is unnecessary.

“There is no scientific evidence to support 21-day quarantine. It’s not evidence-based or proportional and almost certainly does more harm than good, “David Owens, a doctor at OT&P medical practice in Hong Kong, wrote in a newsletter to clients this month.

“Most of Asia is going to be open again fairly soon, and it’s only China, Hong Kong and Macau that are going to be subject to travel bans in 2022,” Cowling said.

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