Hong Kong lifts flight bans and cuts lockdown to ‘restart’ economy

At a press conference on Monday, Chief Executive Carrie Lam said residents from nine countries, including India, the UK and the United States, will be allowed to return home from 1 April. Other countries are Australia, Canada, France, Nepal, Pakistan and the Philippines.

Only vaccinated Hong Kong residents will be able to return from these nine countries. It was not immediately clear what these changes meant for non-residents arriving from any country outside of mainland China.

Flights from nine countries were banned earlier this year as the Omicron variant rolled out around the world. Lam said the bans were no longer necessary as the coronavirus situation in Hong Kong is no longer better than in other countries.

Once Asia’s undisputed business hub, the city in southern China is now experiencing a worrying fifth wave of infections that is leading to more deaths, an overwhelmed healthcare system, a brain drain and a huge hit to the economy. Despite this, the government has largely remained committed to its “zero Covid” policy, maintaining strict social distancing requirements and forcing many businesses to close temporarily.

Lam also said that starting next month, vaccinated Hong Kong residents returning from all countries will be asked to quarantine in hotels for seven days instead of 14.

She added that travelers will be allowed to leave the hotel quarantine if they test negative for the virus on the fifth day, and then test negative on the sixth and seventh days. However, they will still have to go through another seven days of self-examination.

Hong Kong’s quarantine restrictions have gained notoriety in the international business community. Previously, the requirement for most arriving travelers was to self-isolate in hotel rooms for three weeks, making this one of the longest quarantines in the world.

Lam admitted last week the need to improve the city’s position in global business, saying it was time for the government to rethink border controls.

“I have a very strong feeling that people’s tolerance is fading away. I have very good [feeling] that some of our financial institutions are losing patience with this isolated status of Hong Kong as Hong Kong is an international financial centre,” she said at a press conference.

“We must prepare to restart our economy,” she said on Monday.

However, the problem has already caused a significant outcome.

According to immigration data, more than 94,000 people left the city last month and only about 23,000 arrived. And in the first half of March, more than 50,000 people left and about 7,000 entered.

The exodus is affecting businesses across the economy, according to the Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce.

In a statement earlier this month, chairman Peter Wong said the city was “faced with a massive exodus of educated workers on a scale not seen since the early 1990s.”

— Lizzy Yee contributed to this report.

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