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Why does Hong Kong still have quarantine?

Asia's 'world city' is entering its third summer under strict travel restrictions (image courtesy Shutterstock).

Much of Asia has now loosened its pandemic travel restrictions. If you’re in Singapore, you may come and go as you please. Much of Southeast Asia is campaigning hard to attract tourists back. And even Japan has attempted a reopening with tour groups from certain countries allowed in.

However, the unexpected outlier is Hong Kong, the self-dubbed 'Asia World City’.

So why is one of the region’s most vibrant international hubs still shut off from the world with layers of testing and quarantine?

As part of Greater China, the Special Administrative Region is somewhat subject to the mainland’s zero Covid policy and the diktats of Beijing. Despite this, Hong Kong is again this month reporting cases in the thousands and so far there has been no move towards citywide testing or a strict lockdown as in mainland China. It seems that Hong Kong, despite its heavy-handed restrictions and ambitions to the contrary, is living with Covid.

But while Asia reopens, Hong Kong continues to quarantine all arrivals, a policy that has remained firmly in place for more than two years. On many levels it makes little sense. With Covid prevalent in the community, there doesn’t seem there is much to gain from continuing to isolate international arrivals. And there have even been cases where quarantine has increased the spread of Covid. With windows locked firmly shut in most hotels, it was perhaps inevitable that Covid would eventually leak its way into hotel ventilation systems.

While other countries have worked hard to lift entrance restrictions, Hong Kong has got no further than a slight loosening of regulations earlier this year. Arrivals must now quarantine in a designated hotel for seven days, down from a disheartening peak of 21 days, and non-residents are also now permitted entry into the city (as long as they quarantine and complete the onerous testing requirements). Flight bans with major destinations including Australia, the US, France, Canada and the UK have also been lifted.

However, other arrival complications remain in place, including the controversial flight suspension mechanism that sees flight routes shut down if an airline brings in more than a set limit of positive cases (not impossible given Hong Kong’s more sensitive testing regime for travellers). This has made planning a trip to Hong Kong extremely difficult to navigate, as once your flight has been suspended, you have to rebook your quarantine hotel. No easy task given that quarantine rooms are all but fully booked for most of the summer.

All in all, it’s been a miserable time for Hong Kongers, who are now entering their third summer of severe travel restrictions.

But as the city passes hands from outgoing chief executive Carrie Lam to incoming head of government, John Lee, rumours abound of a possible quarantine loosening.

This week those rumours were initially quashed when the city’s rugby union announced that Hong Kong Sevens, once the jewel in the city’s sporting calendar, would go ahead this November (it has suffered no fewer than five suspensions over the last few years) but under a ‘closed loop’ system. There was talk of Hong Kong-based teams needing to quarantine for seven days after the event finishes, of teams needing to be kept isolated from one another during the tournament and of players, coaches and hospitality staff having to stay in designated hotels before, during and after Sevens. All of which does not bode well for a loosening of hotel quarantine for international arrivals.

But by midweek, the media was full of reports that Lee may be looking to cut quarantine. According to the South China Morning Post, the incoming chief executive is working on opening borders both with mainland China and the rest of the world, “including a possible reduction of mandatory quarantine for travellers”. According to the SCMP report, based on an interview with Lee, his newly appointed health chief, Professor Lo Chung-mau, will be reviewing the city’s Covid situation with a view to coming up with interim measures “to reduce inconveniences for travellers.”

Earlier in the week a government official attempting to return to Hong Kong questioned the availability of quarantine hotel rooms. “Does the government even know how many vacancies are available at the quarantine hotels?” lawmaker Doreen Kong demanded in a social media post as she fruitlessly attempted to arrange her own stay. “I called different hotels for two hours to see if they had vacancies, but all their rooms from July to late August are full,” she wrote. “No wonder people haven’t been able to come home.”

This of course is old news to the thousands of Hong Kongers who have been battling the system for months, but it doesn’t harm to have an official bring it to the government’s attention.

Even outgoing chief executive Carrie Lam has entered the fray. “The border control measures have really made people impatient,” she said last week. “Of course, they’ve undermined Hong Kong’s status as a hub.”

From one day to the next, it seems Hong Kong’s future turns on a dime. Which way it ends up facing is anyone’s guess.

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