The Hong Kong International Airport in January 2022. Photo: Asia Times / Jeff Pao

Hong Kong has decided to lift its inbound travel ban on nine countries and halve its hotel quarantine period to seven days from April 1 after the number of local Covid-19 infections started falling.

The government announced on Monday it would drop its plans for citywide mass testing as it was too difficult to implement due to Hong Kong’s high population density.

It said if the number of Covid cases did not rebound significantly, Hong Kong’s social-distancing measures would be relaxed starting from April in three stages over three months.

Since the fifth-epidemic wave broke out in December last year, Hong Kong recorded a total of 1.05 million Covid infections and 5,906 deaths. Most of the deaths were reported between mid-February and mid-March as 95% of the city’s elderly care homes had virus outbreaks and only a small portion of elderly people had received Covid vaccines.

When Hong Kong reported about 100 local infections per day in early February, the government announced a further tightening of its social-distancing rules, but was then criticized by Chinese academics for leaning toward the West’s “living with the virus” strategy.

In mid-February, Beijing ordered Hong Kong to make epidemic control its top priority.

As Hong Kong did not have a clear home quarantine policy, a lot of those with mild infections flocked to public hospitals, resulting in a breakdown of the city’s medical system.

In late February, body bags were seen piled up at Queen Elizabeth Hospital. Last week, the Funeral Business Association warned Hong Kong would run out of coffins within days.

A net outflow of 140,000 people, or 2% of the population, has been recorded in Hong Kong so far this year.

On Monday, the government said vaccinated Hong Kong residents would be allowed to fly directly to the special administrative region from nine countries, including the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia, from April 1. The flight ban had been imposed since early January.

Arrivals from all countries and regions will still need to present negative PCR test results before departure, but will be required to only go through a seven-day quarantine in hotels upon arrival, during which they will be tested every day. At present, all incoming travelers have to be quarantined at designated hotels for 14 days.

Social-distancing rules will be relaxed from April 21 in three stages over three months, provided infection numbers do not rebound. In the second phase, bars, pubs and beaches will be allowed to reopen and people will be allowed to exercise outdoors without wearing a mask.

In the last phase, most measures will be relaxed, but people will still need to use the vaccine pass and the LeaveHomeSafe app.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam said the government was suspending plans to conduct universal mass testing in Hong Kong as it did not have 80,000 medical staff to implement the scheme.  

On Monday, Hong Kong reported a slight drop in new coronavirus cases to 14,068. It was the fifth day in a row the daily caseload has fallen, and the third straight day it was below 20,000.

The outbreak could have already peaked as many people were vaccinated, while social-distancing measures showed their effect, said Chuang Shuk-kwan, head of the Communicable Disease Branch of the Centre for Health Protection.

Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam. Photo: AFP / Peter Parks

In fact, the Omicron outbreak was stabilizing as many residents had already been infected, Chuang said.

More than 80% of the 205 Covid patients who died on Saturday were either unvaccinated or had only one jab, Chuang added.

Yuen Kwok-yung, a microbiologist and a government adviser for the pandemic, said Hong Kong reported the world’s highest death rate as it had missed the golden period in the past nine months to boost vaccination rates among the elderly.

Yuen said Hong Kong lacked the ability to trace virus transmission chains and handle all Covid patients as the Omicron variant was highly infectious.

Meanwhile, about 400 mainland medics started working at the community treatment center for Covid patients at AsiaWorld-Expo. Last week, the Hospital Authority (HA) told reporters it would take the “ultimate responsibility” if any of the newly-arrived Chinese doctors and nurses were the cause of any medical mishaps.

Tony Ling, the president of the Hong Kong Public Doctors’ Association, raised concerns on March 15 that Hong Kong’s infected would not be able to file complaints against mainland medics, who are not locally registered, if medical accidents occurred.

A Now TV reporter asked HA officials about this, but was criticized by pro-Beijing newspapers for inciting hatred against mainland medics and allegedly violating the National Security Law.

On March 17, Chan Tit-piu, the head of news at NowTV, issued a statement apologizing for the reporter’s question and praising the central government and mainland medics for their “selfless support.”

According to a leaked voice recording suspected to be from a Now News meeting, Chan said reporters should not ask questions about mainland medics’ responsibilities, but only contributions. He said reporters should have their questions pre-approved by supervisors before they could raise them in media briefings in the future.

The Hong Kong Journalists Association said the Now TV reporter had asked the question with the public interest in mind.

On Sunday, Chief Secretary John Lee wrote in his blog that people need to be aware of what he called “irresponsible speculation” on social media about mainland health workers who came to Hong Kong to help take care of Covid patients.

He stressed the Hong Kong and mainland medical teams were collaborating well and supporting each other.

Read: HK runs out of coffins as Covid deaths surge

Follow Jeff Pao on Twitter at @jeffpao3