Many shops in Causeway Bay are closed down due to Hong Kong's strict anti-epidemic rules in early 2022. Photo: Jeff Pao

Hong Kong has further tightened its social-distancing rules, including using the “vaccine pass” system that requires all people in shopping malls and supermarkets to be vaccinated.

The changes were made on Thursday, at the same time the United Kingdom officially canceled all its Covid rules.

The former British colony shut down 15 entertainment premises including bars, cinemas, beauty parlors and karaokes on January 7 and religious premises and hair salons on February 10. All these facilities will be closed until April 20.

Starting from Thursday, people who exercise in outdoor areas are required to wear masks, while only two people can sit together in restaurants.

The government said it aimed to control the epidemic by the end of April and would then start preparing for the celebration of the special administration region’s 25th anniversary on July 1, when Chinese President Xi Jinping is supposed to visit the city.

However, medical experts said it was unlikely Hong Kong would achieve zero local infections again after April, although the fifth-epidemic wave would have passed by that time.

The fifth-epidemic wave started in Hong Kong last December due to the rise of the highly-infectious Omicron variant. The city has followed Beijing’s zero Covid policy since the beginning of 2021 in a bid to resume quarantine-free travel, or a so-called “border reopening” with the mainland. But those hopes have now vanished after virus outbreaks were reported early this year.

On Thursday, the number of local infections recorded a high at 8,795, compared with 8,671 on Wednesday. Another 50 Covid patients, aged between 52 and 97, died in the past 24 hours, the Center of Health Protection said Thursday. Of those, 42 were unvaccinated.

A nine-year-old boy, who tested positive for Covid-19, passed away on Thursday morning. The chronically ill boy was unconscious and his heart had stopped beating when he arrived at United Christian Hospital in the morning, said Lau Ka-hin, chief manager at the Hospital Authority.

The boy had some tiredness and a decrease in appetite on Wednesday evening but had no other upper respiratory tract infection symptoms or fever, according to his parents.

On February 8, the government decided to gradually shift towards the western countries’ “living with the coronavirus” strategy by launching a “vaccine pass” scheme to boost the vaccination rate.

Chinese President Xi Jinping has ordered Hong Kong to crack down on the virus. Photo: AFP / Koki Kataoka / The Yomiuri Shimbun

It was then criticized by pro-Beijing academics and politicians for deviating from Beijing’s zero Covid policy. On February 16, Xi ordered Hong Kong to make epidemic control its top priority.

Since then, the Hong Kong government announced it requires all 7.5 million people in the city to undergo three rounds of mandatory Covid tests in March. It said the city planned to complete one million tests per day, but might have to send some samples to the mainland’s laboratories despite people’s concerns about a leak of their biological information.

With the mainland’s support, Hong Kong will build four temporary hospitals for Covid patients and expand the Penny’s Bay Quarantine Center.

Although medical experts said a citywide testing scheme would not be effective to finding those infected without lockdowns, Chief Executive Carrie Lam said there was no need to lock down the entire city.

But to minimize people’s mobility in March and early April, the government said primary and secondary school students would have their summer holidays in advance, while the summer break would begin on August 13.

Some public services will be reduced, while entertainment and religious premises, as well as hair salons and barber shops, will be closed until April 20.

People are not only required to wear masks in public places, but also when they are doing exercises in outdoor areas. Hikers and joggers will be affected. A fine of HK$10,000 (US$1,280) will be handed out for failing to meet the requirements.

Only two people can gather in public areas or sit together in restaurants. Offenders will be fined HK$5,000.

Lam also urged employers to persuade their domestic workers to stay home during their rest days. But some employers were confused by such a call. According to Hong Kong’s Employment Ordinance, an employer must not make any form of payment to the employee in lieu of granting a holiday.

In other words, a “buyout” of a holiday is not allowed. Also, an employer who compels his employees to work on their rest days is liable to prosecution and, upon conviction, a fine of HK$50,000.

The government also postponed the Chief Executive election from March 27 to May 8 so the city can focus on its anti-epidemic battle.

Due to the world’s toughest social-distancing rules, more people have decided to leave the city. According to the Immigration Department, a total of 27,549 people departed Hong Kong during the week ended Wednesday, up from 24,389 people in the previous week.

The number of arrivals also dropped to 4,664 from 6,646 during the same period. A net outflow of 40,628 people was recorded in the city in the past two weeks.

The majority of people using Hong Kong International Airport have been leaving. Photo: WikiCommons

Many medical experts have said the citywide testing scheme might not be able to cut off virus transmission chains as people will keep moving and spreading the virus, especially when the fifth-epidemic wave has not yet peaked and the city is still lacking isolation facilities.

On Thursday, Gabriel Leung, the Dean of the University of Hong Kong’s Faculty of Medicine, said the government should only roll out its universal testing program after the city’s Omicron outbreak has reached a peak in the first half of March and when Hong Kong has sufficient isolation facilities.

“If you then do universal testing, and you have sufficient isolation facilities to support it, you could then hasten that fade-out than it otherwise would naturally do so,” he said, adding that his team’s analysis suggested that the current fifth wave would peak in the first or second week of March, before gradually fading out in late April.

Meanwhile, Leung said the government should consider lifting the ban on flights from nine countries, including the United States and the UK, which has been extended until April 20.

He said since the risk of imported infections is not any higher than that of local transmission, there is no reason not to allow Hong Kong people stranded abroad to come home.

On Thursday, the UK officially canceled all its Covid rules. Prior to this, people who tested positive needed to self-isolate for five days. On January 7, pre-departure testing for travelers entering the UK was scrapped.

In early this month, Thailand resumed its quarantine-free travel program, but still required travelers to do pre-departure and arrival tests, plus a PCR test on the fifth day after arrival.

The country will accept day-five lateral flow tests from March 1. Japan will also ease its Covid border controls next month, although the number of Covid cases in the country continues to hit record highs.

Read: Brain drain shaking Hong Kong financial hub status

Follow Jeff Pao on Twitter at @jeffpao3