Hong Kong stubbornly sticks to strict quarantine regime as region opens up

Hong Kong has for two decades branded itself “Asia’s world city”, but it could soon become one of the region’s most isolated as it looks certain to remain effectively closed into next year even as its regional rivals ease travel restrictions.

Authorities in the Chinese territory have yet to outline a plan to relax strict quarantine rules that have put a de facto halt on international travel. They also remain committed to a “zero-Covid” policy despite other countries in the region, including Singapore, Australia, New Zealand and Thailand, starting to abandon it.

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

The policy is expected to last into 2022 — possibly until after the Chinese Communist party congress in November, according to one Chinese government official — and authorities have not proposed any timeline for loosening the rules.

Hong Kong’s refusal to change tack has renewed questions from the international business community about the city’s status as a global financial centre and the efficacy of its quarantine policy.

“The mood is increasingly dark,” said Tara Joseph, president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong. “People are losing out on seeing their families, which is becoming very difficult on a personal level, and are losing clients, which becomes difficult for business.”

Ben Cowling, an epidemiologist at the University of Hong Kong who is serving a 21-day quarantine, said maintaining the measure for as long as three weeks “doesn’t make sense to me but that is what we will have to face for a year or longer if we continue on a zero-Covid path”.

‘The mainland is more important’

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

“Of course international travel and international business are important for us, but . . . the mainland is more important,” Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, said this month. It was the first time the government has been so explicit.

That focus is expected to delay any move to make international travel easier, due to Beijing’s own strict zero-Covid strategy, and the border is unlikely to be opened soon. Authorities in Beijing and Guangzhou, the southern province across the border from Hong Kong, have ordered the territory to improve its coronavirus controls before any decision is made.

Hong Kong’s chief executive Carrie Lam said the city’s focus was on reopening the border to mainland China © Bloomberg

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 later next year. Hong Kong will also hold a leadership election in March and mark 25 years since the handover from British to Chinese rule of the city in July.

“We’re effectively deciding Hong Kong will become a Chinese city,” said the Asia-Pacific chief executive of a $60bn asset manager.

Business keenly anticipates the reopening of the border but has called on the government to provide a timeline.

“Any border opening would be great for a start,” said Frederik Gollob, chair of the European Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong, which has warned Lam that the strict quarantine rules threaten Hong Kong’s status as a global finance hub.

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

“It would be a huge step,” said an executive at a Wall Street investment bank. “That’s where our clients are. Not being able to conduct business trips into the mainland is unsustainable.”

Businesses and residents look elsewhere

The restrictions have already prompted some multinationals to relocate certain staff and operations, according to business lobby groups.

In May, AmCham said 42 per cent of its members had plans to leave the city due to uncertainty amid the pandemic and the fallout from Beijing’s sweeping national security law, which was imposed on the city following the pro-democracy protests in 2019.

Hong Kong’s population fell 1.2 per cent last year, the largest decline since the government started keeping records in the 1960s. The city’s education department cited movement out of the city as one factor when it reported that primary school enrolment had dropped 6 per cent and secondary by nearly 4 per cent this year.

“Pre-Covid and before the protests, I’d have said we are a Hong Kong-based family,” said one British finance executive who relocated to Singapore this summer. “But that anchor isn’t there any more.”

“The potential for travel means we see [Singapore] as better than Hong Kong at the moment,” he added, despite the more onerous Covid-related limits on socialising in the city-state, where no more than two people can meet in a public place. By contrast, in Hong Kong, most daily activities operate as normal.

Health experts question 21-day quarantine

Hong Kong has not imposed a lockdown during the pandemic and has reported 12,312 cases and just 213 deaths among a population of 7m as of October 21. About 65 per cent of the city’s total population is fully vaccinated, although that includes just 16 per cent of people aged over 80.

Sophia Chan, Hong Kong’s secretary for food and health, has defended the city’s strict approach.

“We keep a close watch on public sentiment when adjusting the control measures,” she said. “In adopting the zero-Covid strategy . . . [the] government puts people’s health as the top priority and adjusts border control and social distancing measures in tandem with the epidemic situation.”

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

The World Health Organization advises that the virus has a 14-day incubation period and some medical professionals say a third week in isolation is unnecessary.

“There is no scientific evidence to support 21-day quarantine. It is neither evidence-based nor proportionate and is almost certainly doing 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 suffering from travel restrictions into 2022,” said Cowling.

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