Patong beach in Phuket. HongKongers returning from the resort town in Thailand face longer quarantine requirements. Photo: AFP / Lillian Suwanrumpha

The Hong Kong government has upgraded 15 countries, including the United States, France and Spain, to Covid high-risk, tripling the quarantine period to 21 days for some travelers from these places.

Currently, most vaccinated people coming from Bangladesh, Cambodia, France, Greece, Iran, Malaysia, the Netherlands, Spain, Sri Lanka, Switzerland, Tanzania, Thailand, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and the US need to be quarantined for 14 days.

If they’ve tested positive for antibodies over the previous 91 days, they can shorten their quarantine period to seven days. The government will also upgrade Australia from low to medium-risk on Friday. Travelers can halve their quarantine period to seven days if they have proof of antibodies.

“The global Covid-19 epidemic situation is under serious threat from the Delta variant, with acute surges in the number of confirmed cases within a short period of time in many countries,” an unnamed government spokesperson said.

“Despite large-scale vaccination programs, many places are also experiencing resurgences of the virus, which pose enormous challenges to our local anti-epidemic efforts.”

The government said it had decided to upgrade the risk grouping of 16 overseas places to impose more stringent boarding, quarantine and testing requirements on inbound travelers.

The announcement came after medical experts urged the government to tighten its quarantine rules as new loopholes in the quarantine system were identified.

Last Friday, a 38-year-old foreign domestic worker who worked at a house in Stanley tested positive five days after her seven-day quarantine. She carried the more contagious L452R mutant strain, but was asymptomatic. A relatively low CT value of her sample showed that the amount of coronavirus in her body was high. 

A domestic worker carried the virus despite being inoculated with the BioNTech vaccine. Photo:

The helper left Hong Kong for the US on June 18 and returned on August 1. She received two doses of the BioNTech vaccine on April 7 and 28. Her blood sample, which was taken in the US on July 27 but sent to a Hong Kong testing company, tested positive for antibodies. Under the current quarantine rules, she could be isolated in Hong Kong for only seven days. After completing her quarantine, she had been to various places in Wan Chai and Stanley.

While most western countries have loosened their quarantine requirements from last month and adopted a “live with Covid-19” strategy with their high vaccination rates, Hong Kong, Macau and the mainland are the very few places in the world that still insist on their “zero local infection” strategy. 

After Hong Kong changed its list of specified places several times over the past two months, the US has been “mistakenly” categorized as medium-risk despite its many infections. On Sunday, 43,818 cases were recorded in the US, compared with 22,539 in the United Kingdom and 14,385 in the Philippines. The UK and the Philippines have been categorized as high-risk.

“The biggest loophole is that America was listed as a medium-risk place. It’s completely inconceivable,” Ho Pak-leung, a microbiologist at the University of Hong Kong, said Monday. “The epidemic there has rebounded for a month already. It’s among the first or second countries with the most daily infections around the world.”

Ho said the US should have been put on the high-risk list along with Britain, India and Indonesia much earlier. He added that it was wrong to shorten the quarantine from 14 to seven days for vaccinated people who came from medium-risk places and tested positive for antibodies. 

Infectious diseases expert Leung Chi-chiu slammed the Hong Kong government for its outdated quarantine rules. He said that as many countries were hit by the Delta variant, Hong Kong should not allow vaccinated people to shorten their quarantine periods to seven days.

He said all travelers from medium-risk places must be isolated for two weeks. Leung also urged the government to stop its plan to offer self-paid antibody tests at the airport from Wednesday as a large crowd would help spread the virus.

Last year, Hong Kong put the US, together with major European and Asian countries, on its list of high-risk places, which were then called Group B places. Travelers from these places were required to spend 14 days in quarantine.

Guests are asked to show proof of having been vaccinated at the Lollapalooza music festival on July 29, 2021, in Chicago. Hong Kong has put the US on a higher-risk category. Photo: AFP / Scott Olson / Getty Images

Since the Delta variant became dominant in South Asia this year, the Hong Kong government banned flights from India, Pakistan and the Philippines from April 20. It further banned flights from Indonesia on June 24 and the UK from July 1.

These countries were then categorized as Group A1 or “extremely high-risk” while Ireland was categorized as Group A2 or “very high-risk”. Early this month, the government combined Group A1 and A2 into high-risk places that require 21-day quarantine and Group B and C into medium-risk places that require 14 days. The list largely remained the same between early July and mid-August.

To encourage people to get the jabs, the government on June 30 started allowing people coming from medium-risk places to halve their quarantine period to seven days with proof of antibodies.

On July 1, the European Union launched its Covid-19 vaccine passport scheme that allows vaccinated people to enter member countries without quarantine.

In mid-July, several travel agencies in Hong Kong, including Miramar Travel, started promoting “quarantine-free” trips to Europe. But they avoided mentioning that travelers would be quarantined for at least seven days when returning to the city.

From Friday, Hong Kong travelers from France, the Netherlands, Spain, Greece and Switzerland will be quarantined for 21 days, not seven, even if they test positive for antibodies.

When the government announced the city’s antibody test arrangement on June 21, it said people had to do the tests at medical institutions before they left for overseas trips. It originally said the test would be available at the airport by the end of July but the launch date was delayed to August 18.

Hong Kong has put the United Kingdom on its list of high-risk countries. Photo: AFP/Justin Tallis

Many travelers who planned to return to Hong Kong in early August were frustrated by the delay as they could not shorten their quarantine period to seven days. Some called the hotline of the Center for Health Protection but they were recommended by staff to come back after August 18.

According to the Food and Health Bureau, the 38-year-old newly infected helper had sent a blood sample from the US to be processed by a laboratory in Hong Kong, allowing her to produce the test certificate on her return on August 1.

The bureau said Monday that it had reminded laboratories not to accept samples taken abroad. It said it did not rule out taking further action.

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