Visitors queue at a community testing center in Hong Kong. Photo: AFP / Miguel Candela Poblacion / Anadolu Agency

International companies are urging Hong Kong’s government to adopt a “living with Covid-19” strategy instead of its current “Covid-zero” policy, as they face difficulties retaining staff who want to travel overseas and return to the city without two or three weeks of quarantine.

Recent media reports said mainland China would keep its border with Hong Kong closed for one more year as the Communist Party of China (CPC) prepares to hold its pivotal 20th National Congress in November 2022.

Before the Hong Kong-mainland border reopens, it’s unlikely Hong Kong’s government will ease its quarantine requirements that currently require incoming travelers to be isolated at designated hotels for 14 to 21 days.

Mainland China, which has recently been hit by an outbreak of the Delta variant, has started to encourage citizens to receive a third Covid jab as they may not have enough antibodies to fend off infection. Medical experts suggest Hong Kong should follow suit as early as possible.

After Hong Kong reported thousands of local infections during a fourth epidemic wave between November 2020 and January this year, Beijing ordered the Hong Kong government to tighten its epidemic rules and adopt a “zero local infection” strategy if the city wants to “reopen its border” with the mainland.

Hong Kong has since taken tough measures to reduce Covid cases and successfully achieved its zero infection goal for more than six months, except that a few individual cases were reported.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam has said that reopening the Hong Kong-mainland border is one of the most important tasks for the government at present, though no progress has been made to date.

On October 15, Hong Kong’s Center for Health Protection said it was investigating a preliminary imported case of Covid-19 involving the L452R mutant strain.

The case was confirmed on the following day involving a 55-year-old man, a staff member of the Consulate General of the Russian Federation in Hong Kong, who left Hong Kong on August 22 for Russia and returned on October 5.

Also on October 15, Tam Yiu-chung, the sole Hong Kong representative in the standing committee of the National People’s Congress (NPC), was told by national health authorities that he was not allowed to attend a meeting in Beijing between October 19 and 23.

Prior to this, Tam attended the NPC standing meeting every two months and he previously enjoyed a right to visit the mainland without quarantine due to his political position.

Ice sculptures depict the mascots of the 2022 Winter Olympics. Chinese authorities are keen to avoid a Covid outbreak during the Games. Photo: AFP / Xiao Liu / Imaginechina

The Hong Kong-mainland border could remain closed until after the CPC National Congress in November 2022, the Financial Times reported on Monday, citing an unnamed Chinese official familiar with the situation.

The report also said it would be politically sensitive if virus outbreaks happened during the Winter Olympics in February, the chief executive election in March, the 25th anniversary of the Hong Kong SAR government in July or the party’s Congress in November next year. CPC General Secretary Xi Jinping is reportedly seeking to renew his term by five more years at the Congress.

Tara Joseph, president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong, said in a previous interview that the prolonged quarantine measures could reduce the international business community’s confidence in Hong Kong’s status as a global financial center.

The European Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong said in an open letter to Lam on August 19 that Hong Kong should relax quarantine measures for vaccinated visitors. But on October 4, Lam insisted that it was more urgent to reopen Hong Kong’s border with the mainland than foreign nations.

“With ongoing travel restrictions, a zero-Covid policy in place and limited detail on an exit strategy from these policies, an unintended consequence is that Hong Kong’s status as an international financial center is increasingly at risk along with its long-term economic recovery and competitiveness as a premier place to do business,” Mark Austen, chief executive of the Asia Securities Industry & Financial Markets Association (ASIFMA), wrote in an open letter to Financial Secretary Paul Chan on Monday.

“Unless restrictions are eased on travel along key corridors such as Europe, the United Kingdom and the United States, where many multinationals’ headquarters are located, we see Hong Kong’s international voice becoming more muted, which is not helpful for the territory’s recovery and the telling of its growth story,” Austen said.

A recent ASIFMA survey said 90% of bankers and asset managers felt operating in Hong Kong was either moderately or significantly negatively impacted by factors outside their control as businesses, particularly the government’s highly restrictive Covid-19 policies.

It said 73% faced difficulties attracting and retaining talent in Hong Kong under such restrictions while 48% of firms contemplated moving staff or functions away from Hong Kong due to uncertainty regarding when and how quarantine restrictions will be lifted.

Despite these calls to ease quarantine measures, the Hong Kong government plans to do the opposite.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam says the priority is resuming quarantine-free travel with the mainland: Photo: People.com.cn

On Tuesday, Lam said Hong Kong was going to scrap most quarantine exemptions, following discussions with mainland health experts aimed at securing a full reopening of the border. Currently, some travelers from overseas can avoid quarantine if the government considers their activities to be in the interest of Hong Kong’s economic development.

“At the beginning of last year, in relation to exempted groups of quarantine-free personnel, most of these will be removed,” she said. “We will only leave those relating to emergency services or services relating to the everyday supplies and logistics of Hong Kong, for example, cross-boundary truck drivers. This is to give confidence to the central authorities that it is safe to open the border.”

She reiterated that the priority was resuming quarantine-free travel with the mainland, saying Hong Kong’s primary advantage was being a “gateway” to the rest of China.

Health experts have noted that although about 75.6% of China’s population is fully vaccinated, the low efficacy rates of its locally made vaccines have made it impossible for the mainland to reopen its borders with Hong Kong and the wider world. As of Sunday, 1.068 billion people out of a population of 1.412 billion in China had been inoculated.

On Monday, China reported 39 new infections. It has recently started giving booster shots to adults whose last dose was at least six months ago, with priority groups including essential workers, the elderly and those with weak immune systems.

Pro-Beijing Hong Kong lawmaker Regina Ip said on October 20 that she was fully vaccinated with two doses of the Sinovac vaccine in March and her antibody count was 182 in May. Without providing the unit of the count, Ip said her antibody count fell to 59 in September. She said the level had jumped to 23,000 after she received the BioNTech-Pfizer vaccine as a booster shot on September 20. The count stood at 17,800 on October 16.

As of Monday, 4.4 million people, or about 59% of Hong Kong’s population of 7.5 million, have received two vaccine doses. However, when factoring out those who received Sinovac, the city’s vaccination rate is only 37%.

If Hong Kong wants to reopen its border with the mainland, the city’s government should let people receive booster shots against Covid-19 as soon as possible, said Ho Pak-leung, a microbiologist at the University of Hong Kong.

Read: Hong Kong’s vaccination drive hits a wall