HK can't end Covid-19 travel restrictions yet: health chief

Hong Kong reported fewer than 4,000 infections on Sept 25, the lowest number since early August. - AFP

HONG KONG (Bloomberg): Hong Kong cannot remove all travel restrictions at this stage of the Covid-19 pandemic, though there is room to quickly relax local social distancing rules, the city's health chief said.

While the business community wants officials to lift the three-day movement restrictions that remain for incoming travellers now that hotel quarantine has ended, Secretary for Health Lo Chung-mau said that would be too risky.

The statistics on imported infections show moving too quickly could pressure the healthcare system, he said.

Imported cases could rise twofold, threefold or even tenfold if further relaxation is implemented too soon, he added during a TVB programme on Sunday.

"At present, the testing positive rate of our community is about 1 per cent, but that number for travellers coming to Hong Kong from other places is still 3 per cent, which is three times the risk," Professor Lo said.

"There are many new variants of viruses in foreign countries", creating more possible danger, he added.

Prof Lo acknowledged that the number of newly confirmed infections in Hong Kong has fallen and said there is room to relax social distancing measures in the community. The government will do that quickly, he said.

The city reported fewer than 4,000 infections on Sunday, the lowest number since early August. There were 117 imported cases.

The Asian financial hub scrapped hotel quarantine from Monday after 2½ years of isolation.

It adopted three days of health monitoring in its place, a policy dubbed 0+3 that allows new arrivals to go to work and study but not enter restaurants or many other indoor venues.

When asked if "0+0" could ever be implemented, essentially dropping all restrictions, Prof Lo deflected, mentioning several possibilities.

In the next month or two, the Covid-19 rate could continue to decline and the vaccination rate could continue to rise, moves that would safeguard the healthcare system, he said. But there are no guarantees.

The government sees too many variables to formulate a "return to normalcy" road map now, he added.

The dismantling of hotel quarantine was met by calls for the city to remove the remaining restrictions on travellers to help revive its fortunes as an international financial hub. While business groups and analysts welcomed the move, they said the government needs to provide a clear plan to fully reopen.

Almost three years of pandemic restrictions have devastated Hong Kong's economy and pushed residents and businesses to move overseas.

When a full reopening will occur is still not clear. "The Hong Kong government is leading seven million people to chart this road of fighting the epidemic," Prof Lo said. "We must make sure that this road is safe and that it will not destroy people."

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