This photo taken on September 30, 2020, shows an empty pool at the luxury Vijitt Resort in Phuket. Photo: AFP/Lillian Suwanrumpha

Fully vaccinated Hong Kong residents will be allowed to be quarantined for seven days instead of 14 when returning from tourist destinations such as Thailand and Europe from June 30.

Foreigners who have Covid-19 antibodies will also be required to be isolated for only one week when entering the city by the end of July, according to the special administrative region government.

They will have to reserve a hotel room for 14 days and undergo a Covid-19 antibody test on the second or third day after their arrival. If the result is positive, they can leave the designated hotel a week earlier.

The new rules will only be applied to people arriving from Group B and C specified places or high and medium-risk places such as France, Germany, the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, Singapore, Taiwan and mainland China.

Travelers from Group A1 specified places or extremely high-risk places such as Brazil, India and the Philippines, and Group A2 specified places or very high-risk places such as Ireland and Indonesia will be quarantined for 21 days.

The announcement came after the European Union said June 16 that it added nine places – the United States, Albania, Hong Kong, Lebanon, Macau, the Republic of Northern Macedonia, Saudi Arabia, Serbia and Taiwan – to its country list for non-essential travel.

The EU’s Covid-19 vaccine passport scheme will start on July 1, restoring freedom of movement for people who have been inoculated with one of four vaccines – BioNTech, Moderna, AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson – approved by the European Medicines Agency.

The scheme will apply also to those who have recently recovered from Covid-19 as well as those who have tested negative.

Paramedics in hazmat gear examine the travel documents of a passenger at a checkpoint along the border between Hong Kong and mainland China. Photo: China News Service

Under all these new changes, vaccinated Hong Kong residents will be able to visit most European countries without being quarantined from July 1. When they come home, they will be quarantined in a designated hotel for seven days.

Before their trip, they must get a certificate which shows that they tested positive for antibodies. The certificate will be valid for three months.

Hong Kong residents can also choose to spend their holidays in Thailand’s Phuket, which is set to reopen to international tourists for quarantine-free travel on July 1. Other cities in the country still require 14 days quarantine.

Currently, Japan and Taiwan are closed to foreigners. Foreign visitors have to be isolated for 14 days in South Korea.

Hong Kong people could also choose to visit Macau as the two SARs may reopen borders for quarantine-free travel two weeks later.

On Monday, the Macau government said if Hong Kong could achieve zero local infections for 28 days in a row, the gaming city would grant a daily quota for vaccinated Hong Kong people to enter. Currently, Hong Kong residents can go home from Macau without quarantine.

As of Monday, there had been no local infections in Hong Kong for 14 days. On Tuesday, seven imported cases were recorded in the city. Six of them were newly arrived domestic workers from Indonesia, according to the Center for Health Protection. Of the seven, five had the L452R variant.

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

On Monday, two patients from the UK and one from Indonesia were identified in Hong Kong. They all had the L452R variant.

Public health concerns

While Hong Kong’s tourism sector is cheered up by the relaxation of the quarantine rules, health experts have raised concerns.

Ho Pak-leung, a microbiologist at the University of Hong Kong, said it could be risky for Hong Kong to reduce its quarantine period from 21 to seven days as 30% of the cases could be leaked to the community.

Ho said Hong Kong had been successful in preventing the virus from spreading to the community with a 21-day rule. He said people with a low antibody count could still spread the virus.

Ho said Hong Kong’s seven-day quarantine requirement was inconsistent with that of Macau, which requires all incoming travelers to be isolated for 21 days.

Benjamin Cowling, an epidemiologist from the University of Hong Kong’s School of Public Health, told RTHK the government should set out the antibodies level arrivals to Hong Kong would need to qualify for reduced quarantine. Cowling also said their ongoing study showed people who’d had the Sinovac vaccine had a much lower level of immunity.

“I would very much like to know which tests are going to be done on arrival,” said Cowling. “On each of the antibody tests that we were doing on the samples in our study, they were all positive one month after the second dose, but I don’t know how long they would stay positive for.”

Activists protest against lockdown restrictions in London. Thousands of people are due to return to Hong Kong from the British capital, increasing the risk of infections. Photo: AFP / David Cliff / NurPhoto

He said at some point, perhaps several months later, some people who received Sinovac could start to test negative for antibodies instead of positive.

Covid patients discharged from hospital should be exempt from quarantine as they should have antibodies in their bodies, he added.

As of Monday, 1.3 million people in Hong Kong have received their second vaccine dose. Of these, 41% have received Sinovac while 59% had BioNTech.

Infectious diseases expert Leung Chi-chiu urged the Hong Kong government to put the UK, which has recently reported a sharp increase in cases, into Group A2 specified places, instead of Group B specified places.

Leung said thousands of people, mostly students, would return from the UK to Hong Kong during their summer holidays. He said it would be better to isolate these people for 21 days as any single case could trigger an outbreak.

Read: EU set to welcome tourists from Hong Kong, Taiwan