Hong Kong’s Quarantine Reduction: Too Little, Too Late
A demoralized city demands to join the rest of the world
By: Malick Gai
The August 8 announcement by Hong Kong’s new Chief Executive John Lee Ka-chiu (above) reducing the city’s Covid-19 quarantine is late, inadequate, out of step with the rest of the world, and a mockery of its pretensions to be a “global city,” critics say.
Starting on August 12, the mandatory quarantine period was reduced from seven days to three in a hotel room followed by four days of medical surveillance at home. Although these new “3+4” arrangements may make Hong Kong slightly more attractive as a travel destination than previous policies did, they don’t repair the damage done to the economy, tourism industry, or the brain drain caused by skilled workers leaving the city, the critics say.
“The fact that we are celebrating the quarantine reduction shows how much our city has been demoralized,” said a city resident who asked to be identified only by his first name, Sean “A lot of people have already left and I can’t see any of them coming back.”
The quarantine reduction announcement came amid calls by businesses, residents, and health experts to lift the restrictions and shift away from China’s zero-Covid policy, which is crippling the mainstream economy. The new changes, they say, are insufficient and they are urging the government to scrap quarantine altogether.
“The main purpose of this new measure is that, while we control the threat to public health, we also want to ensure the society can have the maximum degree of economic and social activities and the competitiveness of Hong Kong can be maintained,” Lee said.
During the four days of home quarantine, people must test negative on daily Rapid Antigen Tests, take PCR tests at community centers on certain days, and can only leave their quarters for shopping, work and school, but can’t go to restaurants, bars or gyms. An amber code in their LeaveHomeSafe mobile app means they are still under medical surveillance, and if it turns red, they must immediately isolate.
The question is how well the longtime quarantine policies are working. On August 13, the city recorded 5,308 new infections, the highest since April 1, of which 160 were imported cases. In all, Hong Kong recorded 32,636 cases in the past seven days, a 5 percent jump over the previous week.
Elsewhere in the world, living with Covid is mostly settled policy, but in Hong Kong mask-wearing, social distancing, scanning upon entry to public buildings, and daily RATs for some professions is the norm. Combined with the most restrictive quarantine measures in the world, Hong Kong’s international reputation as a hub for global business and travel is suffering.
In February alone, Hong Kong lost 65,295 residents to immigration according to the Financial Times, owing to harsh Covid restrictions, quarantine, and the threat of a Shanghai-style lockdown. Replacing the leavers with newcomers is now a pressing challenge.
“Arrivals to Hong Kong may jump as much as 80 percent following the government’s cut to the hotel quarantine period,” said Lo Chung-mau, Hong Kong’s new Health Secretary.
Dr. Vinci Cheung, a Hong Kong-based psychologist with OT&P Healthcare, said 30 to 40 percent of her mainly ex-pat clients have left Hong Kong for good, due to the fluctuating quarantine policy, their inability to easily visit families abroad, and the shrinking economic situation.
"In quarantine, clients express anxiety and uncertainty. The fear of testing positive and being taken to Penny's Bay [a government isolation facility] further multiplies their stress levels," she said.
The rating agency Fitch expects Hong Kong’s economy to decline again this year for the third time since 2019, heightening the risk of prolonged economic damage. Real GDP in 2023 is forecast to drop by 1 percent from the 2018 level.
“We anticipate the latest partial relaxation of inbound quarantine requirements [...] will do little to stimulate the return of tourists and short-term business travelers, who have grown accustomed to the absence of any such restrictions across most jurisdictions,” Fitch announced on August 9.
The Asia Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association in an October 2021 letter to Financial Secretary Paul Chan Mo-po confronted the government for its Covid policies for the first time, calling them “highly restrictive.” In the letter, the lobby group, representing 155 of the largest banks and investment firms including Goldman Sachs and BlackRock, stated that “73 percent report experiencing difficulties attracting and retaining talent in Hong Kong” and that a total repeal of the zero-Covid policies was necessary to maintain the city’s global reputation.
"Hong Kong has lost its relative competitiveness. A lot of talent has left for Singapore and the UK. The longer Hong Kong pursues its restrictive Covid policies, the longer it will take for the economy to rebound, it may take at least two to three years," said Dr. Thomas Yuen Wai-kee, assistant professor of economics and finance at Hong Kong Shue Yan University.
According to Bloomberg, Wall Street banks have stated their senior executives will attend a two-day summit in November on the condition they are excused from quarantine. The summit organized by the Hong Kong Monetary Authority is reportedly designed to welcome back international business to the city.
In a statement following the government’s announcement reducing the quarantine period, Cathay Pacific Airways Ltd, Hong Kong’s flagship carrier, asked for further cuts, saying, "We are asking the government to urgently provide a clear roadmap showing the complete removal of all Covid-related restrictions for aircrew and passengers as soon as is feasible to protect Hong Kong's international aviation hub status."
After having been hit by a 98 percent reduction in passenger numbers over the last two years due to travel bans and prohibitive quarantine regulations, shares in Cathay jumped by 3.5 percent on August 8.
The exorbitant cost of quarantine accommodation and flights have been a major concern for international arrivals. In June, reportedly more than 40 designated quarantine hotels had increased their prices by upwards of 80 percent since the quarantine scheme was launched in 2020.
International arrivals have also complained about unclear communication and mixed messages coming from the Center for Health Protection, the hotels and the commercial companies, such as Prenetics, employed by the government to carry out testing.
According to Trip.com China’s largest online travel agency, flight bookings to Hong Kong increased by 249 percent after the reduction announcement, with inbound bookings from Bangkok, London and Taipei, while outbound flight orders rose 176 percent from the previous day.
“The new rules will make a difference to people coming. It's doable. As long as the new quarantine policy is better than the previous ones, it is an improvement,” said Brian Hayes, 48, the managing director of executive search firm The Hayes Group.
However, a 33-year-old British teacher who asked not to be identified for fear of losing her job, reported being “traumatized” by having to interact with staff conducting PCR tests at the Dorsett Hotel, Wan Chai, in ominous gowns and head shields, treating arrivals as if they were infectious. “I would rather leave Hong Kong forever than have to quarantine again,” she said.
Malick Gai is a journalism student at Hong Kong Baptist University and an Asia Sentinel intern