A crowd in a shopping mall in Tseung Kwan O on March 15, 2021 Photo: Asia Times

Hong Kong is to loosen its anti-epidemic rules slightly from Wednesday and Thursday after local infections fell significantly in the past week.

Cinemas and theaters could be 75% full from Thursday, compared with the current cap of 50%, Health Secretary Sophia Chan said on Monday.

Indoor religious activities could resume from Wednesday with up to 30% of the premises’ capacities being used while swimming pools and beaches would reopen. Despite a virus outbreak at a restaurant last month and another in a fitness center this month, the government had no plan to tighten social distancing rules in these premises, she said.

Bars, nightclubs, party rooms and mahjong parlours would remain closed until April 14 as these were high-risk in terms of virus transmission, Chan said.

From Thursday, the government would cancel the ban on Hong Kong residents flying back from the United Kingdom. These people would still have to be quarantined in designated hotels for 21 days, she said.

People coming from low-risk Australia, New Zealand and Singapore will be isolated for only 14 days. Incoming travelers who have had their second dose of Covid vaccine can be quarantined for 14 days. Others will still be isolated for 21-days.

Since November 23, up to 5,000 Hong Kong residents per day have been allowed to return from Guangdong and Macau without being quarantined under the Return2hk scheme. The Hong Kong government said Monday that the scheme would be expanded to cover residents who came back from everywhere in China.

Chan said all these “minor adjustments” should not be called relaxations.

Hong Kong Zhuhai Macau Bridge Zhuhai Port is quiet on March 27 but Hong Kong may ease travel restrictions from mainland China. Photo: Koki Kataoka/Yomiuri Shimbun/AFP

She said as the fourth-wave epidemic in Hong Kong was coming to an end, was important for people to stay vigilant in the coming two weeks, especially during Easter holidays between April 2 and 6. Relaxation of epidemic rules depended on vaccination progress.

The government could consider allowing relatively low-risk activities to resume if Covid cases continue to fall after the Easter holidays, said Leung Chi-chiu, chairman of the Medical Association’s advisory committee on communicable diseases.

“This is the first time since the fourth wave of infections we are seeing such a continuous decreasing trend in the unknown cases, so things are looking up,” Leung said.

“But I think we need to wait until next week before regularly seeing zero unknown cases… and four more weeks may be needed to break off the chain of silent community transmission.”

The authorities could consider easing the ban on public gatherings of more than four people, or allow more businesses to reopen, only if the pandemic remains under control for a longer period, said Joseph Tsang, an infectious disease expert from the Medical Association.

Hong Kong reported no local infections between Friday and Saturday. However, eight cases, including seven imported ones and one local infection, were recorded on Sunday, according to the Center for Health Protection.

The local case involved a student of the Baptist University. He had been to three buildings in the university and taught in a football class during his incubation period. His close contacts will be sent to quarantine centers.

BioNTech vaccines

About 462,400 doses of Covid-19 vaccine have been administered in Hong Kong as of Sunday, the government said. About 443,900 people have received their first dose, with about 292,600 people receiving the Sinovac vaccine and about 151,300 getting the BioNTech vaccine. About 18,500 people have received their second dose of the Sinovac vaccine.

Since last Wednesday, BioNTech vaccinations have been suspended as the manufacturers investigate packaging defects among a batch in Hong Kong and Macau. Hong Kong’s vaccination workers have reported problems on 57 occasions, involving cracks in containers, leakage due to overpressure from vials, loose caps, as well as stains or marks on the outside of bottles.

According to preliminary investigations by Fosun and BioNTech, there is no obvious systemic factor during the processes from filling and packaging to administration that could have led to the defects.

“We will receive a full report from Fosun and BioNTech this week. Hopefully we can resume the vaccination shortly,” Chan said Monday.

To encourage the public to get vaccinated, the government would exempt restaurant staff, teachers and construction workers from regular virus tests if they had received the second jabs for at least 14 days, Chan said. Vaccinated people would also be allowed to visit relatives at elderly care homes or hospitals.

Edward Yau, the Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development, said Hong Kong had resumed its talks with Singapore about the “travel bubble” scheme, which was suspended last November. Yau said the Hong Kong government would require participants to be vaccinated before departure.

Hong Kong should also also resume talks about travel bubbles with Japan, Thailand and Taiwan, said Jason Wong, chairman of the Travel Industry Council.

Hong Kong should launch its vaccine passport scheme as early as possible to encourage people to get the jabs, said David Hui, chairman of the Department of Medicine and Therapeutics at The Chinese University of Hong Kong and a government adviser on the pandemic. The vaccine passport should allow people in Hong Kong to travel overseas freely for up to six months without being quarantined.

Antibodies generated by Covid vaccines could last for at least a year, compared with six to nine months protection in recovered coronavirus patients, he said.

Hui added that it was not satisfactory that fewer than half a million people had been inoculated in a month after the vaccination program started. He said the government should open more vaccination centers to speed up the progress.

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