Hong Kong Experts Urge Reopening Once City Hits 90% Vaccination
(Bloomberg) -- Hong Kong should begin a trial of gradually reopening its borders with the rest of the world, and slash its quarantine requirements, once the overall vaccination rate nears 90%, the city’s virus experts wrote in an opinion piece.
An initial reopening could focus on business travelers whose vaccination records are verified with antibody tests, a team from the University of Hong Kong’s Li Ka Shing Faculty of Medicine wrote in the Ming Pao newspaper. They suggested cutting the city’s lengthy quarantine period to 48 hours, from what can currently stretch out to as long as three weeks.
The authors, including Yuen Kwok-yung, a top government adviser and world-renowned expert in microbiology and infectious diseases, urged the government to proactively boost vaccination rates and booster shot coverage. Currently only 62% of the population is fully vaccinated, according to Bloomberg’s vaccine tracker.
The call for normalization comes as Hong Kong imposes increasingly stringent border control measures as the highly mutated and wildly transmissible omicron variant is spurring record case counts globally. The city is one of the only places to have avoided a delta outbreak, with no local virus spread occurring since early June. The success comes with a cost, the experts said.
“Assessing the current global trends, it is difficult for Hong Kong to maintain a continuous Covid-Zero status without affecting business and leisure travel, harming the mental health of Hong Kong people and Hong Kong’s status as an international financial center,” they wrote. “Containment and elimination are a means, not a goal.”
Hong Kong has maintained a zero tolerance approach toward Covid throughout the pandemic to align with policies in China. Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam and other officials have defended it as necessary to reopen the border with the mainland, which is their priority.
The reopening time line with the mainland remains unclear, however, despite a raft of local media reports in recent weeks saying it could take place in incremental steps before the end of the year. Hong Kong’s financial regulator unveiled rules for quarantine-free business travel to the Chinese mainland two weeks ago, but there has been little movement since then.
In a trial stage of reopening, the experts including David Lung and Ivan Hung said travelers could seek approval to be released from quarantine facilities after three negative PCR tests within 48 hours, with options to return home or stay in hotels. They should be tested daily or every other day at designated labs for the remaining 19 days, at their own expense.
Movements should be limited to hotels, workplaces and designated restaurants. “Multi-layered” tracking measures should be in place at this stage, the experts said.
The recommendations show the stringent approach in Hong Kong is starting to get some pushback, even from those who advise the government on handling the pandemic. Experts in China have also said the city’s measures may sometimes go too far.
Hong Kong’s quarantine policy is even more aggressive than what’s practiced in some areas in China. Researchers associated with the Guangdong Provincial Centre for Disease Control and Prevention said isolation mandates longer than 14 days are likely “an over-reaction” to the threat.
A move to ease border restrictions and normalize international travel will likely to lead to sharp increases in infections and 1,000 or more deaths, mainly among unvaccinated elderly people, the HKU experts said. Health care systems and hospitals should brace for such an event and prepare a “soft landing” during the transition period, they said.
Hong Kong would be ready for “full scale, orderly reopening” once 99% of the population has immunity and vaccine boosters have been given, the researchers said. Such a large-scale reopening should begin before winter hits, with at least two months of a “post-vaccination wave” transition period budgeted in, they said. It would be reasonable, therefore, to start reopening the border before July, they said.
After enduring the post-vaccine waves, the government would be able to treat Covid as if it were a severe winter flu, drawing on the lessons learned from vaccine leaders like Singapore and Israel, they said. The city could then stop large-scale testing, tracking and tracing, and quarantine activities, they said.
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