Hong Kong considers shortening quarantine period

The city’s main quarantine centre, called Penny’s Bay, is currently housing thousands of close contacts of those infected as well as some new arrivals from the airport. - Bloomberg

HONG KONG (Bloomberg): The Hong Kong government is considering shortening the city’s lengthy quarantine period for travellers -- currently as long as 21 days -- as the Omicron variant appears to have a quicker incubation period than other strains.

"Because of Omicron taking over Delta globally, we are also looking at the Omicron incubation data,” Secretary for Food and Health Sophia Chan said in an interview on Bloomberg TV on Thursday (Jan 27).

"If there’s room to adjust the quarantine period, we will do it.”

"We are doing a review everyday,” she said. "Once we have further adjustments, we will announce.”

Home quarantine may also be an option in the future if city-run centres become full, Chan said. Any change needs to first tackle some operational issues, such as getting supplies and support to those people, she said.

Hong Kong is currently dealing with one of its biggest outbreaks since the pandemic began, with some 560 local cases reported since end of December.

The city’s main quarantine centre, called Penny’s Bay, is currently housing thousands of close contacts of those infected as well as some new arrivals from the airport. The city has also locked down buildings inside a public housing estate with thousands of residents as it works to contain the flareup.

"If we have used up all of our Penny’s Bay capacity, which is not unlimited -- yes, home quarantine would be an option,” she said. "But of course we would have to assess the risk as to who will be going to Penny’s Bay and who will be having home quarantine.”

The comments came as Hong Kong continues to hew to a zero-tolerance approach in step with mainland China, a strategy that’s required increasingly aggressive measures as the virus mutates to become more transmissible. The approach won’t change in the near future, as the city will continue to focus on eliminating the virus, Chan said.

"Obviously public health considerations are number one,” said Chan.

But the city’s quarantine facilities and hospital resources are already under strain.

With the emergence of omicron and delta in the community, the former British colony has limited dining hours, shut bars, cinemas and gyms and closed schools to slow its spread.

It also culled hamsters, put young children and travellers in quarantine camps, and banned flights from eight places to eliminate any potential threat of a Covid flare-up. And still new infections continue to climb in the city that spent much of 2021 virus-free.

Chan said she’s "optimistic” Hong Kong can return to some resemblance of normalcy within a year.

"We are in control of the virus,” she said.

While most economies have shifted to some form of living with the virus, Hong Kong’s zero-tolerance approach has hurt its reputation as a global financial hub. The policy could keep the city cut off from most of the world until 2024 and fuel a large-scale exodus of international workers and executives, according to a draft report from the European Chamber of Commerce.

The current outbreak in Hong Kong means now isn’t the time to reopen the border with mainland China, Chan said, though progress was made in November and December.

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