“We hope to reduce the inconvenience for arriving passengers. We don’t want to move backwards,” Lee said in a news conference, emphasizing the need to balance health risks against the desire for economic revival.
The moves are designed to reinvigorate a formerly freewheeling international city that has lost some of its competitive edge under some of the world’s toughest coronavirus restrictions.
But the question many are asking is whether the measures are too little, too late. Hong Kong’s population dropped at its steepest rate on record over the past year and its labor force continued to shrink. Many of those leaving have cited the pandemic restrictions as well as China’s crackdown on the city’s freedoms. Meanwhile, countries such as Singapore that reopened sooner have lured businesses and tourists.
The relaxation comes ahead of a meeting of Chinese Communist Party leaders in Beijing, where President Xi Jinping is expected to secure a third term amid discontent over his strict “zero covid” policy.
Hong Kong officials long hewed closely to China’s goal of stamping out outbreaks, though without the more-extreme measures seen in the mainland. But for a long time, arriving passengers were forced to spend as much as three weeks confined to a hotel room. Residents who tested positive for the coronavirus were routinely shipped off to spartan isolation rooms — with parents sometimes separated from their children. The city enforces mandatory mask-wearing and limits on gathering sizes.
Brian Leung, an American who works in health care, left Hong Kong in June after more than a decade in the city. He said he moved to Singapore because it relied “more on scientific decisions, rather than political” considerations to inform its approach to living with covid-19.
“Hong Kong was a great city, but with how it coped with the pandemic a lot of weaknesses came out,” Leung said, adding that some of the covid rules had been “inhumane.” “We were scarred by that.”
While some other places in East Asia have been slow to reopen, the severing of Hong Kong’s links with the world hit especially hard because of its role as a global financial capital. Uncertainty about when Hong Kong would end its isolation caused at least 45 airlines to stop flying to what was previously one of the world’s busiest aviation hubs.
“A lot of airlines will be keeping an eye on Hong Kong, but will be reluctant to commit anything to the market until they see clear evidence that the restrictions are being removed and more importantly … will not be reintroduced,” Willie Walsh, director general of the International Air Transport Association, said in a media briefing this month.
To kick-start Hong Kong’s reopening, the city intends to host a financial forum and a rugby Sevens tournament in November.
Epidemiologists, business leaders and even pro-Beijing politicians who once hailed the importance of attaining “zero covid” had called for the government to relax the quarantine requirements, expressing worries about sacrificing the city’s competitiveness for a virus that has become far less of a threat with the advent of effective vaccines, improved treatments and increased immunity.
What’s more, the strict border rules didn’t stop the virus from leaking in. For a time, Hong Kong had the developed world’s highest death rate from covid-19 owing to its failure to adequately vaccinate its elderly population. The city has reported thousands of coronavirus cases a day for months.
The end of quarantine may do little to boost the economy in the short run, experts said.
Terence Chong Tai-leung, an economics professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said he did not expect a “huge immediate effect” because Hong Kong’s fortunes are closely tied to those of mainland China, which remains largely closed. Without mainland tourists, Hong Kong lost a massive chunk of its retail sales.
John Mullally, managing director at recruitment consultancy Robert Walters, said Friday’s news was a “really good first step,” but predicted it could take “three years for the city to take back its pre-pandemic caliber and the type of talent to trickle back in.” He estimated that about 15 to 17 percent of foreign and mainland Chinese finance workers have left Hong Kong.
Gary Ng, senior economist at Natixis, said entering Hong Kong will still involve inconveniences of mandatory testing and use of health codes, making Singapore a better option for foreign businesses looking to send talent to Asia in the near term.
David Crawshaw in Sydney contributed to this report.