Hong Kong plans to relax some anti-COVID-19 measures next month, lifting a ban on flights from nine countries, reducing quarantine, and reopening schools, after a backlash from business and residents.
The moves, announced on Monday by Chief Executive Carrie Lam, come as many countries shift to trying to live with the virus rather than trying to keep it out.
Residents in the Chinese-ruled territory have become increasingly frustrated with the stringent measures, many of which have been in place for over two years.
A ban on flights from Australia, Britain, Canada, France, India, Nepal, Pakistan, Philippines, and the United States will be lifted from April 1.
“The flight ban is no longer timely and appropriate…it will bring huge disturbances to Hong Kong people who are stuck in these nine countries if we continue the ban,” Lam told a news briefing.
Hotel quarantine for Hong Kong residents arriving into the city could be cut to seven days from 14 if they tested negative, Lam said. She had previously said measures would be in place until April 20.
Schools would resume face-to-face classes from April 19 while public venues including sports facilities would also reopen from April 21, she said.
Hong Kong’s border has effectively been shut since 2020 with few flights able to land and hardly any passengers allowed to transit, isolating a city that had built a reputation as a global financial hub.
Hong Kong has registered the most deaths per million people globally in recent weeks, more than 24 times that of rival Singapore – due to a large proportion of elderly who were unvaccinated as the highly transmissible Omicron variant ripped through care homes.
The densely packed city has recorded more than a million infections since the pandemic started and about 6,000 deaths – most of them in the past month. Authorities reported 14,068 new cases on Monday and 223 deaths.
As many as 4 million people, out of a population of 7.4 million, could be infected according to estimates from health experts as many residents have contracted the virus and isolated at home without notifying authorities.
Businesses and the city’s economy are reeling from widespread closures, while doctors say many residents are grappling with rising mental health issues, particularly among low-income families.
Lam’s policy turnaround comes after her administration has been scolded repeatedly by politicians, pro-Beijing media and on Chinese social media, just weeks before the city is due to hold an election on May 8 to choose who will lead the territory for the next five years.
She declined to comment on whether she will run for a new term.
A plan to carry out mass coronavirus testing would be put on hold, Lam said, citing experts who said it was not a suitable time. Hong Kong needs to have a clear exit strategy rather than trying to completely eradicate the virus, experts said.
While the former British colony has officially stuck to the “dynamic zero” coronavirus policy, similar to mainland China, which seeks to curb all outbreaks, it has been shifting to mitigation strategies as deaths skyrocketed.
Lam said social distancing measures would be eased in phases starting April 21, allowing restaurant dining after 6 p.m. with tables of four people from two currently.
Nightclubs, pubs, and beaches would be allowed to open in the second phase while people would be allowed to exercise outdoors without a mask. Masks are currently compulsory everywhere outside the home.
Until this year, Hong Kong had been far more successful at controlling the coronavirus than many other cities its size, but the latest wave of infections swamped its world-class medical system, morgues are overflowing and public confidence in the city government is at an all-time low.