In this file photo taken in 2021, a man is seen walking past a closed store in Hong Kong . Photo: AFP Vernon Yuen / NurPhoto

Discussions about whether Hong Kong should maintain a zero Covid policy or “live with the coronavirus” have become a political debate between members of the pro-establishment camp and veteran Hong Kong officials.

Hong Kong reported 985 local Covid cases on Thursday, compared with the historical high of 1,153 cases on Wednesday.

After a closed-door meeting of the Executive Council on Tuesday, the Hong Kong government announced a tightening of social-distancing rules by shutting down facilities including religious premises and hair salons until February 24 – and, after that date, allowing only vaccinated people to enter these places plus shopping malls, supermarkets and wet markets.

Due to the new measures, more people went to get the vaccines.

Meanwhile, however, on Wednesday, a Chinese academic said in an article that the Hong Kong government had failed to contain the virus because Hong Kong administrative officers, known as AOs, were vacillating between Beijing’s zero Covid policy and the West’s “living with the virus” strategy.

A pro-Beijing politician said some Hong Kong elites’ promotion of the “living with the virus” strategy will put Hong Kong people’s health and lives in danger.

Meanwhile, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Wednesday that people in England with Covid-19 would no longer be legally required to self-isolate from late February, about a month earlier than the previously-scheduled date, March 24. France, Portugal and Greece also announced that they would soon drop pre-departure tests for incoming travelers.

The fifth-epidemic wave started last December in Hong Kong, which since early 2o21 had at Beijing’s request pursued a “zero local infection” strategy.

During this fifth wave, more than 4,000 people have been infected locally in different districts across the city. On Wednesday, the city recorded two death cases for the first time, both involving elderly men who had chronic illnesses.

Chuang Shuk-kwan of the Center for Health Protection said some patients were retirees and housewives who had visited shopping malls and markets – and added that many of those infected had taken part in large gatherings during the Lunar New Year period.

If social mobility in Hong Kong could be reduced by around 25% from the level during the Christmas and New Year holidays, the fifth wave would cause around 250,000 infected cases, which was similar to the current pandemic trend in Hong Kong, according to a research team at City University of Hong Kong (CityU).

The estimation, made with an age-stratified mathematical model on January 7 when Hong Kong only recorded a few local cases per day, was announced on Wednesday.

“According to the current situation, if social distancing measures are not efficient, we expect the fifth wave to peak at the end of February or in March, and the number of infected cases will gradually decline until the vaccination coverage for the third dose reaches a certain level,” said Sean Yuan Hsiang-yu, assistant professor in the Department of Biomedical Sciences at CityU.

Prior to this, the government said it would expand the coverage of its “vaccine pass” scheme, which will take effect on February 24. On top of the original 17 scheduled premises such as bars, gyms and massage parlors, six more premises will be added, including religious premises, shopping malls, department stores, supermarkets, markets and barber shops or hair salons.

The government also reduced the number of people allowed per group gathering in a public place from four to two and only allowed a maximum of two households to have gatherings at private premises.

The government may send officers to randomly check people’s vaccination records at shopping malls and supermarkets but not on private premises. The fixed penalty for those who do not wear masks on public transport will be increased to HK$10,000 (US$1,283) from the current HK$5,000. A person who participates in prohibited group gatherings will be fined HK$5,000.

On Tuesday evening, the police launched an operation at a restaurant in Causeway Bay and fined 29 people a total of HK$140,000 as they had a spring dinner there after 6 pm when all restaurants were supposed to be closed. Media reports said some of the offenders belonged to a local gangster group.

Although the “vaccine pass” scheme was criticized for hurting people’s rights, it successfully forced many people to get the vaccines. The government said a total of 84,541 people received the Covid vaccines on Wednesday, including 36,584 people who got the first dose. Before the announcement of the scheme, about 20,000 to 30,000 people were inoculated per day.

On February 4, Lam Ching-choi, a pediatrician and a non-official member of the ExCo, said the government should consider gradually shifting towards the “living with the virus” strategy as the city’s quarantine and social distancing rules, which have disrupted people’s livelihood, should not be extended indefinitely.

Regina Ip, another non-official member of the ExCo and the current chairperson of the New People’s Party, wrote in an article on Wednesday that the government should not rely on lockdown measures to fight the pandemic as Omicron was highly-contagious. Ip said the government should not over-worry about privacy issues but use mobile apps to trace the close contacts of the patients.

On Tuesday evening, the non-official members of the ExCo in a departure from normal procedure issued a statement and said they “unanimously and strongly support the government” in implementing bold and precise measures in response to the severe epidemic situation that Hong Kong was facing.

Bernard Chan, the convenor of the ExCo non-official members, said non-official ExCo members trusted that the government would, as always, continue striving to enhance the implementation of the anti-epidemic measures to meet the expectations of the community.

On Wednesday, Tian Feilong, an associate professor at Beijing’s Beihang University Law School and director of the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macau Studies, said in an article that Hong Kong’s AOs, who are civil servants but not politically appointed officials, did not truly believe in the zero Covid policy and had given up containing the virus so that Hong Kong could resume quarantine-free travel, or so-called “border-reopening,” with western countries, not the mainland.

Tian said western countries failed to implement zero Covid policy so they let the virus spread in the community and then eventually claimed that such a “living with the virus” strategy had succeeded. He said the “living with the virus” strategy was unfair to the elderly and those with chronic diseases.

He said if Hong Kong reopens its border with the West, instead of with the mainland, the pro-democracy protesters and AOs will have achieved their goal of slowing the economic and political integration between Hong Kong and Guangdong province.

Cheung Chi-kong, a former non-official member of the ExCo and a pro-Beijing politician, charged in an article published Thursday that many Hong Kong elites, including Lam Ching-choi, who is a medical expert, believed in the West’s “living with the virus” strategy but pretended to agree with Beijing’s zero Covid policy.

Cheung said the Hong Kong government had actually given up its plan to reopen Hong Kong’s border with the mainland but it did not dare to admit it. He said Hong Kong should decide its anti-epidemic policy under the principle of “one country,” not “two systems.”

On February 5, Hong Kong shortened the hotel quarantine period for incoming travelers from 21 days to 14 days plus seven days of home quarantine, under the pressure of medical experts and foreign companies. The current requirement is now in line with the mainland’s arrangements.

Follow Jeff Pao on Twitter at @jeffpao3