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Hong Kong lifts flight bans, suspends mandatory mass testing amid waning tolerance for ‘zero covid’

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam takes questions from reporters during a news conference on March 21. (Vincent Yu/Pool/Getty Images)

HONG KONG — Hong Kong will lift flight bans in place for nine countries including the United States and reduce mandatory quarantine for returning residents to seven days, in the first easing of the city’s draconian coronavirus restrictions in many months as the financial hub buckles under the weight of its “zero-covid” policy.

The changes underscore a mounting pressure for Hong Kong officials to not only prioritize reopening the border with mainland China but also restore its international ties, as more companies and professionals abandon the city, citing pandemic restrictions.

Starting April 1, flights will be allowed in from nine countries including the United States, Britain, Canada and the Philippines. These routes were banned in January after the highly transmissible omicron variant was first detected here, but the rate of coronavirus infections and fatalities in Hong Kong is now higher than in any of those countries.

For two years, Hong Kong held off the pandemic. Then, everything fell apart.

Only fully vaccinated residents will be allowed to enter the city. Arriving residents from countries other than mainland China will need to quarantine in a hotel room for seven days, down from 14.

The measures are the first major moves to reopen Hong Kong’s borders, which have largely been closed since the start of the pandemic two years ago. They come as Hong Kong’s own coronavirus situation worsens, with infections and deaths rising since February. As of Sunday, total cases reached over 1 million (out of a population of 7.5 million); 5,600 deaths were recorded in the latest pandemic wave, surpassing those in Wuhan, China, the virus’s initial epicenter, over the past two years.

Experts have urged the city to lift flight bans, saying they make no sense when the risk of incoming travelers spreading the virus is less than that from those living in this densely populated city.

Announcing the policy changes in a news conference Monday, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam said the flight ban was “outdated.”

“The situation [in these countries] aren’t as bad as Hong Kong’s,” Lam said. “It will bring inconvenience to Hong Kong locals stuck in these nine countries.”

Lam also noted the public opinion that quarantine and testing requirements for incoming travelers are “harsher” than those for locals.

“This can affect Hong Kong’s international status,” Lam said.

Body bags, overflowing morgues and chaotic hospitals: Hong Kong’s pandemic goes critical

Hong Kong’s zero-covid policy of preventing any kind of infection with severe restrictions has begun to show cracks and taken an emotional and financial toll on the population. The strict rules have prompted a massive flight of people out of the city.

In February, Hong Kong recorded a total net loss of 65,000 residents. A consistent daily net loss of thousands has been recorded for nearly two months, an unprecedented trend in the past two years.

The zero-covid strategy is also starting to show cracks on mainland China. On March 11, it reported its highest number of coronavirus cases since the early days of the pandemic, with 1,100 infections spread across 18 provinces and cities. Although zero-covid remains official policy, experts have announced the development of a road map toward an eventual “coexistence” with the virus.

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Lam said Hong Kong will have to reopen slowly, starting in three stages from late April while the government works to push up vaccination rates among children and seniors over the age of 70. By late May, residents will need three vaccine doses to access most facilities and restaurants. Both the Pfizer and Sinovac coronavirus vaccines are available in Hong Kong.

As Hong Kong’s latest outbreak worsened, authorities initially announced in late February that every resident would need to get tested for the virus three times in a mass testing exercise similar to those imposed in other Chinese cities during the pandemic. Lam said Monday that this arrangement will be “suspended,” because Hong Kong has “weak community organization capacity” compared with the mainland. Instead, resources should be focused on reducing deaths and severe cases, she said.

However, Lam pushed back on the idea that Hong Kong is effectively moving away from the zero-covid strategy. Instead, she stressed that the city will take into account connectivity with the mainland and the outside world.

“I advise you need not draw any conclusion of where we are heading toward in the announcement we have made today,” Lam said.