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Hong Kong eases covid restrictions for arrivals, scraps tracking app

Hong Kong residents will no longer have to scan the “Leave Home Safe” covid-tracking app when entering shops or restaurants. (Chan Long Hei/Bloomberg News)
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After more than two years of rigid pandemic rules, arrivals to Hong Kong will be allowed to move around the city freely if they test negative for the coronavirus, the city’s chief executive, John Lee, told reporters Tuesday.

In a sudden turnaround, Hong Kong residents will also no longer be required to scan the “Leave Home Safe” tracking app when entering shops or restaurants.

While there are still some restrictions in Hong Kong, such as mandated masking, the financial center is joining mainland China in a broader push toward easing restrictions.

Lee said the decision to further ease arrival rules was made after an analysis of infection risks by the city’s health officials. The infection risk from “imported cases is actually lower than risk of added local infections within a community,” he said at a news conference.

China prepares for exit wave of infections as it relaxes covid policies

Travelers to Hong Kong have endured various restrictions, including a harsh 21-day quarantine upon entry. The city scrapped this requirement in September, moving to a “0+3” rule, which meant that arrivals could not step into restaurants, bars or other venues for three days while they performed medical monitoring but were otherwise free to move around.

The strict coronavirus rules have undermined Hong Kong’s role as a regional aviation hub. Although Hong Kong International Airport is significantly busier than it was before mandatory hotel quarantine was scrapped, it is not back to pre-covid levels. By contrast, cities such as Singapore, Seoul and Tokyo have lifted travel restrictions, allowing tourists to visit with minimal restrictions.

Hong Kong’s tough rules have also triggered a brain drain, as international talent leaves for alternative global hubs such as Singapore or Dubai.

Tourists have also expressed frustration. In November, as Hong Kong hosted the Rugby Sevens tournament, a handful of ticket holders were turned away because the code displayed on their tracking apps was still colored amber, indicating they were still within the three-day monitoring period. They included Renier Du Plessis, from South Africa, who was finally allowed into venues after he became known as #AmberCodeMan on Twitter.

This week’s decision is a step in the right direction, said Siddharth Sridhar, a virologist at the University of Hong Kong. Neither the “Leave Home Safe” tracking app nor the three-day restriction was “contributing much to covid control locally,” he said. But “it was never going to be a complete cancellation of all measures” due to the rise in coronavirus cases and deaths in recent days, he said.

There were 158 deaths from covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, in the past seven days in Hong Kong, a jump from 108 in the previous week, according to government figures. The city has also seen the daily average of new infections increase to about 13,460 in the past seven days, from around 9,370 in the prior week.

Shibani Mahtani in Singapore contributed to this report.