Hong Kong eases travel restrictions that have hit the economy and sparked an exodus
Hong Kong has eased its rigid border controls after restrictions put in place to control the territory’s worst coronavirus outbreak hit the economy and prompted residents to flee the city.
Carrie Lam, the city’s leader, said she would lift the flight ban from nine countries, including the United States and the United Kingdom, for Hong Kong residents and allow those travelers to put themselves in quarantine in a hotel for seven days instead of 14. The changes will come into effect on April 1.
“Hong Kong’s isolation requirements for incoming travellers. . . could in turn harm the local business environment, especially as the rest of the world moves towards an easing [Covid policies]”, Lam said Monday. “The economy needs to move forward.
The move will encourage international businesses, which have argued that Hong Kong’s tight controls undermine the city’s status as a global financial hub.
“The measures are the sign we’ve all been waiting for,” said Frederik Gollob, president of the European Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong. “[But] the decision comes almost too late. . . We need to see the recovery plan to avoid further damage, because the damage has already happened for a long time.
Gollob said most of the businesses in his chamber were struggling to retain staff and many were considering leaving Hong Kong.
Property moguls, bankers and academics had warned that the restrictions had caused a brain drain and hurt the city’s economy. The territory recorded a net loss of 65,295 residents last month and another 40,920 in mid-March.
Paul Chan, the city’s financial secretary, said Sunday that the restrictions would bring the economy back to contraction.
“Hong Kong’s economy will inevitably fall into negative growth in the first quarter of the year, with the unemployment rate deteriorating even faster,” he said.
Lam had previously argued the checks were needed to convince the mainland to reopen the border, but last week signaled a change in direction.
“I have the very strong feeling that people’s tolerance [is] discoloration,” she said. “I have a very good feeling that some of our financial institutions are losing patience with this kind of isolated status of Hong Kong and Hong Kong is an international financial center.”
Allan Zeman, a hospitality magnate and government adviser, called Monday’s announcement, which boosted restaurant stocks, vital.
“We have resumed our activities. . . I have already seen it [during the 1997 handover of Hong Kong from the UK to China] people left, then after people came back roaring, the strength of Hong Kong will still be there,” he said.
Cases are falling after the city reported more than a million Covid infections since the fifth wave hit in late December, with at least 5,600 deaths, surpassing the official toll in mainland China. Beijing is also struggling to contain the country’s biggest outbreak since Wuhan and as of Sunday had recorded around 132,000 Covid infections and 4,600 deaths after reporting few infections in the first two years of the pandemic.
“[Health] experts also believe the peak has passed and infections are trending down,” Lam added.
As the outbreak spiraled out of control, the government suggested a citywide lockdown and mass testing of the entire population, triggering a wave of panic buying. A policy that Covid-positive children could be separated from their parents in hospitals has further frightened residents.
The government said on Monday that the unprecedented testing exercise would now be suspended, but “if the time is right” it could still be carried out.
Face-to-face schooling will resume in stages from April 19 and most social distancing measures will be maintained until April 20.