A nurse holds her arm after receiving the Sinovac vaccine in Hong Kong. Photo: Peter Parks/AFP

Hong Kong is to extend social distancing rules by two weeks from Wednesday, with anti-epidemic rules to be relaxed only if more people get vaccinated.

According to a newly announced “vaccine bubble” scheme, restaurants will be allowed to have six people at one table and open until midnight from April 29 if all their staff have their first dose of Covid vaccine.

After that, all customers must use the government’s LeaveHomeSafe exposure notification app, instead of using hand-writing notes, unless they are elderly people with no phone.

In the second phase, they can have eight people at one table and offer banquets with up to 100 people if all their staff have had their second dose and a vaccination e-certificate shows their customers have had their first dose.

Restaurants could set up “clean zones” for vaccinated customers to sit together. Non-vaccinated customers will still be allowed to dine at restaurants but have to follow the current requirements of having no more than four people at one table.

In the final phase, anti-epidemic rules will be further relaxed if all staff and customers are vaccinated.

Restrictions on restaurants will be eased in stages. Photo: Asia Times

Currently, bars, karaoke lounges, party venues, bathhouses, mahjong parlours and nightclubs are closed for public health reasons. They will be allowed to reopen at limited capacity on April 29 if they can ensure that all their staff and customers have got their first dose. After eight weeks, anti-epidemic rules will be further relaxed if all staff and customers are vaccinated.

Premises for religious activities, weddings and corporate meetings will be allowed to take in more people if they are vaccinated. Local tours will resume for inoculated people.

The government also plans to stop providing free virus tests to non-vaccinated people, except in mandatory virus test operations. Also, vaccinated people will be able to join the “travel bubble” scheme launched by Hong Kong and other countries, as well as visit their relatives at elderly care homes.

Consequences

Chief Executive Carrie Lam said the government would not force people to get vaccinated as such move would cause a lot of disputes. She said the coming “vaccine bubble” scheme did not only provide incentives to the vaccinated people but also remind the non-vaccinated ones that they would face consequences such as being unable to sit with more friends at restaurants, go to entertainment premises, travel overseas or enjoy free virus tests.

She dismissed suggestions that these consequences would be unfair to those who’re ineligible or unfit for vaccination. She said these people would be handled specially.

Lam said the fourth wave of the epidemic between November and early April was coming to an end as only a few local infections were reported in the past week.

The next phase of the government’s anti-epidemic strategies would have four elements: return to normality; refrain from a “stop-and-go” approach; reinforce infection control measures in a targeted manner; and reiterate the need for concerted community efforts. She urged the public to get vaccinated as the vaccination rate in the city was low.

As of Sunday, about 834,800 vaccine doses have been administered in Hong Kong. Of these, about 578,900 people have had their first dose, with about 348,600 people receiving the Sinovac vaccine and about 230,300 people getting the BioNTech vaccine. About 255,900 people have received their second dose.

On Monday, two local infections and 11 imported cases were reported, according to the Center for Health Protection. Both could be linked to previous cases.

David Hui, a professor of respiratory medicine at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and an advisor to the government, said Sunday that Hong Kong would consider reducing the quarantine for travelers from low-risk countries from 14 to seven days. Hui said travelers from medium-risk countries could be quarantined for 14 days, instead of 21.

The government on Monday announced that those flying from countries considered low-risk such as Singapore, Australia and New Zealand would be put under quarantine for seven days or less in future.

Travelers from places deemed to be at medium-risk would have their quarantine cut from 21, to 14 days or less. A ban on flights from the United Kingdom will be lifted in May but travelers will still be required to undergo a 21-day quarantine at hotels.

By the end of this month, a quarantine-free travel scheme for Hong Kong permanent residents who live in Guangdong will be extended to the rest of the mainland. The scheme would also be open to all types of traveler, even foreigners who live on the mainland.

Lam said the quota would depend on the capacity of the airport and the two road border points currently open. She said currently only half of the 5,000 daily quota for Hong Kong permanent residents in Guangdong were used, showing that Hong Kong could receive more incoming travelers.

Read: Hong Kong to expand quarantine-free travel plan