Hong Kong will scrap flight bans and reduce quarantine for arrivals, amid mounting frustration with a strict “zero COVID” policy that has turned the financial centre into one of the world’s most isolated cities.
Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam said on Monday authorities will lift flight bans on nine countries including the United Kingdom and the United States and cut hotel quarantine for incoming travellers with a negative COVID-19 test result from 14 days to seven.
The new measures will come into effect from April 1, Lam said.
Schools will also resume face-to-face classes from April 19, while public venues, including sports facilities, will reopen from April 21, she said.
Other social distancing measures, including a limit on the number of diners in restaurants and the closure of bars, gyms and massage parlours will be eased in stages from April 21, Lam said.
Lam also said plans for compulsory COVID-19 testing for the entire city will be put on hold.
The announcement comes days after Lam acknowledged that tolerance for the city’s pandemic strategy was “fading” among the general public and businesses.
Under an elimination policy designed to align with mainland China, Hong Kong has implemented some of the strictest pandemic rules on Earth at the same time other governments are lifting restrictions and returning to normal life.
Hong Kong, a major financial hub that brands itself “Asia’s World City,” has seen an exodus of foreign businesses and talent after more than two years of tough border controls with no clear end in sight.
About 71,000 people left the city in February, with some 54,000 people departing in March so far, according to government statistics. Despite keeping COVID-19 cases low throughout most of the pandemic, the city’s death rate has smashed global records in recent weeks as the Omicron coronavirus variant sweeps through the elderly population, which has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the developed world.
Wolfgang Ehmann, chief representative at German Industry and Commerce, Hong Kong, described the easing of the quarantine rules as “long overdue”.
“Now we are looking forward to further lifting of restrictions as we go along,” Ehmann told Al Jazeera.
Under the eased measures, Hong Kong will still have the toughest travel restrictions in Asia outside China. South Korea and Malaysia, two of the last countries in the region with border restrictions, have announced the end of quarantine for vaccinated arrivals from April 1.
“The pace of reopening in Hong Kong is still relatively slower than the rest of Asia, such as Singapore and Australia,” Gary Ng, an economist at Natixis in Hong Kong, told Al Jazeera.
“The roadmap is a relief for confirming the reopening path, but the pace is still a big question mark. If Hong Kong does not find a way to close the gap with other competitors, the current reopening pace may not stop the outflows of talent. The most important comparable advantage of Hong Kong is on its free flows of capital and people. Without it, it is for sure that Hong Kong will lose its competitiveness.”