Hong Kong announced Monday it would lift a flight ban for nine countries and start easing COVID-19 restrictions in an effort to begin opening up the city after a strict zero-COVID policy. Photo by Jerome Favre/EPA-EFE
March 21 (UPI) -- Hong Kong, which has maintained some of the most stringent COVID-19 prevention policies in the world, said Monday it would lift a ban on flights from countries including the United States and ease other restrictions amid a growing outcry from businesses and residents.
The city's chief executive, Carrie Lam, announced at a press conference that flights from nine countries -- the United States, Britain, Canada, Australia, France, India, Pakistan, Nepal and the Philippines -- would be allowed to resume service to Hong Kong on April 1.
The city imposed the ban in January as a so-called "circuit breaker" amid a global surge in cases driven by the Omicron variant, but Lam said Monday that the constraint was no longer necessary.
"The [ban] is out of date, because the epidemic situation [in the nine countries] is not worse than that of Hong Kong, and most of the people returning to Hong Kong are asymptomatic," Lam said.
Hong Kong is also reducing a mandatory hotel quarantine for arrivals from 14 days to seven and will be lifting other restrictions on local schools and businesses. Schools will resume in-person classes on April 19 and other social distancing guidelines will be eased in phases from April 20, Lam said, starting with facilities such as gyms and beauty salons reopening and business hours being extended for restaurants.
The business community and local citizens have been pushing the Hong Kong government to ease its rigid pandemic regulations, which have helped contribute to an exodus that has reached record numbers in recent weeks amid fears of an impending lockdown.
Hong Kong has followed a strict "zero-COVID" model similar to China, which helped keep case numbers low over the first two years of the pandemic. However, since late December, the city has seen a spike in Omicron-driven cases that has overwhelmed hospitals and led to the highest per capita fatality rate in the world, with more than 1 million confirmed infections and over 5,000 deaths among a population of 7.5 million.
In early March, daily case numbers surpassed 50,000 but the figures have been steadily declining, with 14,068 cases reported on Monday. Lam said Hong Kong was on its way back to a state of normalcy.
"If you look at the numbers, of course everyone is a little numb now," she said. "I can only appeal to the public to be patient because we have given everyone a clear roadmap and timetable. As long as the epidemic continues to decline, after four weeks, we can gradually resume normal life."
Lam added Monday that officials would suspend a much-criticized plan to test the entire population of Hong Kong, which was the type of sweeping action that has characterized mainland China's coronavirus response.
Hong Kong remains under a "one country, two systems" framework with Beijing, but the city's autonomy has dwindled significantly after a crackdown in response to mass 2019 pro-democracy protests.
Monday's loosening of restrictions is a departure from the policy that Beijing still adheres to as it faces its own growing wave of cases, but Lam rejected the idea that Hong Kong was moving in its own direction.
"We have to listen more carefully to the experts, both locally and from the mainland," she said. "Since we are also very concerned about the socioeconomic development, we will widely consult various stakeholders in Hong Kong to come up with a more permanent pathway...I would advise that you need not draw any conclusion of what we are heading towards in the announcement that we have made today."