Hong Kong lifts international travel ban after more than 900 days



CNN

The Hong Kong government has announced the end of the official quarantine for international travelers after more than two and a half years of strict pandemic controls.

Under the new rules that will come into effect from September 26, incoming travelers will have to undergo three days of self-screening on arrival.

Hong Kong’s government has faced significant pressure from its business community and some public health officials to ease restrictions amid a faltering economy, an outflow of foreigners and concerns that the financial hub, once known as “Asia’s Global City,” was being left behind. as the rest of the world went through the pandemic.

Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee said at a much-anticipated press conference on Friday that the number of cases in the city had stabilized, allowing for the lifting of the quarantine.

“We hope to give maximum room for Hong Kong’s reunification and revitalization of our economy,” Lee said.

Inbound travelers will be able to do their three-day self-monitoring at home or at a location of their choice. During this time they will be able to go out, but they will be restricted from certain places.

Arrivals will no longer need to provide a negative PCR test before boarding a plane. However, they will need to give a negative rapid antigen test (RAT) 24 hours before boarding.

During the three-day monitoring period, people will be assigned an amber color under the city’s digital health code, which will prevent them from entering places like bars or restaurants.

The policy change came after Japan announced it would reopen its borders from Oct. 11 and after Taiwan said it plans to lift the mandatory quarantine on Oct. 13 if the island is past the peak of the latest Omicron BA-5 outbreak.

Questions about when the city will ease restrictions have become more acute as two major international events, the Hong Kong Sevens rugby tournament and a world banking conference, were scheduled for November and seen as a way to revive the beleaguered city. city, which has been shaken. in recent years by pro-democracy protests and Beijing’s subsequent crackdown on civil liberties.

While several governments introduced border controls after the outbreak of the pandemic, most have since withdrawn the measures, including Singapore, which usually competes with Hong Kong to attract foreign businesses and talent.

But unlike other global hubs, Hong Kong’s Covid-19 policies have long been seen as closely aligned with mainland China, where Beijing continues to maintain a strict zero-Covid policy and border quarantines, with no signs of easing as the eradication of infection remains at a premium. priority.

Calls to ease international border controls under Lee’s predecessor Carrie Lam, who stepped down on June 30, have been thwarted by a competing demand to open quarantine-free travel to the mainland – a proposal that has not been met yet.

A public signal of Beijing’s support for Hong Kong’s new political path came on September 20, when Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Bureau Deputy Chief Huang Liuquan said the Hong Kong government was coordinating its policies according to its local situation and the adjustments made need not be “over-interpreted”.

While Hong Kong’s new policy on international arrivals may not herald an imminent change in mainland policy, it is an indication of divergent situations on either side of the border.

Although the city kept local cases to a minimum for the first two years of the pandemic, Hong Kong experienced an explosive outbreak of the highly infectious Omicron variant earlier this year and has not revived a zero-Covid stance since. Instead, the city continued to count between hundreds and thousands of daily cases. Official records show more than 1.7 million cases have been reported in the city of 7.4 million, although experts believe the true number is higher.

In mainland China, by contrast, the vast majority of the country has yet to be exposed to the virus – putting its population at a deficit in terms of natural immunity to infection, a concern for health officials there who fear the strain could cause a wide-scale outbreak in the health system.

Hong Kong’s new measures come more than 900 days after the city first imposed border restrictions in March 2020 and nearly two years after it imposed a hotel quarantine on all international arrivals in December 2020. At its longest, the quarantine period reached 21 days. Travelers who tested positive during the quarantine were transferred to designated facilities, including, at times, government camps.

The program became increasingly controversial in the public eye after Covid-19 vaccines became widely available, local case numbers rose and places with similar systems such as New Zealand and Australia opened their borders.

This summer, a lack of available hotel rooms and limited flights sparked public outrage as travelers risked being stranded out of town until a free room opened up if their itinerary was disrupted, for example if they contracted Covid-19 or reschedule a flight.

Some restrictions have been eased in recent months. In May, non-Hong Kong residents were allowed to enter the city from abroad for the first time in more than two years, while a program that led to the suspension of some flights with Covid-positive passengers was lifted in July.

Earlier this summer, the Lee administration shortened the quarantine from one week to three days, plus an additional four days of health monitoring, during which arrivals are not allowed to go to places like bars, gyms and restaurants.

Hotel quarantine and pre-flight testing requirements had been seen as a major barrier to travel to the city, however questions remain about what role the new plan will play in reviving the city’s once vibrant tourism industry.

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