Hong Kong ramped up its hotel quarantine period to at least two weeks for vaccinated residents returning from most countries, ending a short-lived flirtation with looser travel rules and setting off a stampede for flights and hotel rooms.
The government will no longer accept test results that prove a person has infection-fighting antibodies to cut quarantine times in half to one week for new arrivals from medium-risk places, Chief Executive Carrie Lam said at a briefing Tuesday. The move comes a day after it tightened curbs on travelers from 16 nations, including the U.S., that mostly tripled quarantine periods to three weeks.
Hong Kong’s decision solidifies its place alongside China in the “Covid Zero” camp, a group of countries including New Zealand that are intent on eliminating any sign of the virus. The city briefly experimented with easing travel restrictions, sparking praise from the business community and locals who were eager to resume international travel. However a single infection in someone returning from the U.S. suggested that a week of quarantine wasn’t long enough to ensure all cases would be caught.
Plenty of questions remain. Experts later said the infected person could have contracted the virus in the quarantine hotel. Meanwhile, the first definitive local transmission from an unknown source in more than two months was reported on Tuesday. A 47-year-old woman who worked as an airline staff member of Cathay Pacific Airways at Hong Kong International Airport tested positive for the virus and was found to be carrying the more transmissible delta variant.
Change of Plans
The abrupt reversal means only vaccinated travelers from New Zealand, Macau, mainland China and Taiwan will be able to enter Hong Kong after a seven-day quarantine period. It follows the advice of the scientific committees on Vaccine Preventable Diseases and Emerging and Zoonotic Diseases and comes after a resurgence of outbreaks across the globe driven by the delta variant.
Lam didn’t specify when the new rules will become effective. The uncertainty has led travelers who are overseas currently to scramble, often unsuccessfully, to extend their existing hotel quarantine stays. Others are feverishly calling airlines in hopes of booking an earlier flight back, allowing them to return before the changes are implemented.
Most countries, even those who have aggressively maintained a zero-tolerance policy, are starting to plot their reintegration with the rest of the world.
Rival financial hub Singapore is laying out plans to incrementally ease restrictions and begin loosening its strict border controls as vaccination rates climb, ranking it among the best in the world. Hong Kong’s vaccination rate lags other economic powerhouses, with just 39% of its population fully immunized.
The government’s move Monday to shift 15 nations to the “high-risk” category also means tourists and unvaccinated residents from those places will no longer be allowed entry.
|High-risk areas||Current: Brazil, India, Indonesia, Ireland, Nepal, Pakistan, the Philippines, Russia, South Africa and the U.K.
Adding Aug. 20: Bangladesh, Cambodia, France, Greece, Iran, Malaysia, the Netherlands, Spain, Sri Lanka, Switzerland, Tanzania, Thailand, Turkey, United Arab Emirates and the U.S.
|Medium-risk areas||Everywhere outside of China that isn’t high- or low-risk|
|Low-risk areas||Current: Australia and New Zealand
Removing Aug. 20: Australia moves to medium-risk from the low-risk group
Hong Kong’s flip-flopping creates additional uncertainty and risks further diluting its attractiveness as a business destination. The sector reacted with dismay to the about-turn in the Covid policy direction.
“The re-opening of Hong Kong has been postponed until further notice,” said Frederik Gollob, chairman of the European Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong. “There is no reliability whatsoever coming from the Hong Kong government regarding how long new measures can last and what the criteria are to change the quarantine measures and travel arrangements.”
The government has had some success in keeping the virus out, with almost no locally transmitted cases in more than two months. It does have a handful of imported cases almost daily, however.
The surge of the delta variant across the world is increasing the fear that the new mutation may seep through Hong Kong’s borders, overturning its track record and changing the direction of its policy.
The city’s economy has faced an uneven recovery from two years of contraction. It’s been starved of big-spending tourists and business travelers, with retailers and tourism-related businesses — some of the biggest employers of Hong Kong’s working class — particularly hard hit.
Following the latest policy shifts, it’s unlikely there will be relief soon for businesses dependent on international travel.
“I’m a little concerned that Hong Kong will continue on this Covid-Zero policy for the longer term,” said Ben Cowling, head of epidemiology at the University of Hong Kong.