Hong Kong has no ‘timeline’ for easing tough international border controls

Hong Kong has “no definitive timeline” for lifting restrictions on international borders this year, a top official has said, despite the heavy toll the city’s zero-Covid policy has taken on its status as a transport and financial hub.

Hong Kong’s elimination strategy, which involves 21 days of quarantine for international arrivals, has made it increasingly difficult for executives to use the city as a regional hub. Passenger flights to eight countries, including the UK and US, have been banned and air freight services reduced.

The city will also ban transit flights from about 150 countries categorised as high risk because of the Omicron variant from Sunday for at least a month.

But the chaos wrought by the global Omicron outbreak has reinforced the Hong Kong government and public’s confidence in the city’s zero-Covid strategy, Edward Yau, secretary for commerce and economic development, told the Financial Times in an interview.

“It will be hard to address [the question of a timeline], as it will be subject to a lot of conditions and situations . . . I think no one can give you a definite timeline as such,” Yau said.

Hong Kong has recorded just 213 deaths from the pandemic and avoided citywide lockdowns. By contrast, the UK has registered 174,233 Covid-19 deaths.

But international business has expressed concerns that the city has articulated no exit strategy and is becoming cut off from the world, which is leading to an exodus of talent.

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Hong Kong’s population dropped by 1.2 per cent in the first half of 2021, according to the latest census records, with 88,800 applying as of September 30 last year for a British national (overseas) programme that offers a route to citizenship. The population movements have been partly fuelled by a tough political crackdown on freedom of expression that followed pro-democracy protests in 2019.

The Hong Kong government has also come under fire after senior officials contravened official advice against participating in large gatherings by attending a birthday party for a mainland official at which two Covid cases were found.

But Yau countered that despite a recent Omicron outbreak that has led the government to reimpose social distancing rules, the zero-Covid strategy had protected the city, with most Covid-19 cases detected while the carriers were in quarantine.

“That’s why we are so adamant that we must maintain this policy . . . The Hong Kong formula is one that we give maximum security, safety and normalcy to the local business operating environment, and that has been achieved as we have seen a lion share of the time last year,” he said.

Edward Yau, Hong Kong commerce secretary, says there is widespread public support in Hong Kong for the government’s Covid restrictions © AFP via Getty Images

Yau added that popular sentiment was in favour of “zero-Covid” and business needed to adapt to the challenges of the virus.

“If you go out to ask the local community, people are still very adamant that they very much want Hong Kong to remain a Covid-safe place for daily living,” he said.

“Some cities have [had] to adjust [to Omicron] by the on-and-off shutting down of the community. Some were suffering from a very high toll on their public health system,” Yau said.

Hong Kong’s zero-Covid policy is tied to a similar strategy in mainland China. The government argues that to reopen its border with the mainland, the city needs to maintain the elimination policy.

Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, told lawmakers on Wednesday that talks with mainland authorities on reopening the border were at the final stages. But she added that the city would need to record no locally-transmitted cases for at least 14 days before this could happen.

Hong Kong’s restrictions and decision to ban passenger flights has prompted other carriers to suspend services to the territory.

Critics have also blamed slow vaccination rates, particularly among the elderly, for the city’s inability to lift quarantine restrictions.

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