Illustration: Craig Stephens
John Hanzhang Ye
John Hanzhang Ye

Hong Kong’s Covid-19 policy and reopening road map must be clear and manage expectations

  • A lack of clear targets for the reopening of Hong Kong over the past few years has bruised both public and business confidence
  • To restore trust, the government must communicate effectively with both sectors, and be accountable
Hong Kong has taken a step towards reopening with the axing of mandatory hotel quarantine for overseas arrivals. This is encouraging news and flight prices have soared. Hong Kong, compared to Southeast Asia, still has a way to go to catch up with the region’s opening up, but there is at least hope now that the city will soon return to normal.
Three years after Covid-19 hit, with most developed economies back in operation, Hong Kong is under enormous pressure to reopen its borders. Politicians and business leaders have repeatedly urged the government to lift restrictions so Hong Kong can live up to President Xi Jinping’s expectations as an international financial centre and a gateway between China and the rest of the world. Government officials had repeatedly responded that opening up depended on the vaccination and infection rates.
The official hesitancy reflected the dilemma Hong Kong faced between reopening its border with the zero-Covid-policy mainland, and the rest of the world living with Covid-19. It has also led to a deterioration of expectations among the public and the business community.
A recent consequence was the initial cancellation of the Standard Chartered Hong Kong Marathon, after official approval failed to arrive in time. Though the organisers later decided to move it to next year instead, after communication from the government, the incident reflected a lack of public confidence in Hong Kong’s reopening.
Similarly, the Royal Caribbean cruise line has reportedly lost patience after waiting for official permission to relaunch its “cruise to nowhere” service, and may now move it elsewhere. This has raised concerns in Hong Kong’s travel industry. Singapore and the rest of Southeast Asia have thrown open their doors to tourists, but in Hong Kong, there is still no clear sign as to when normality will return.

Let the end to hotel quarantine be the first positive step of many

Without a clear plan and targets, the government’s repeated urging of the public to get vaccinated does not help the city achieve its goals. The science is clear that vaccination lessens the risk of severe Covid-19 and death. But after two years of pushing for ever-higher vaccination rates while keeping the city firmly closed, the authorities are hardly burnishing their reputation as promise keepers.
There is fatigue in the business community as reopening continues to be tied to various vaccination targets, from a recommended high two-dose vaccination rate to a high three-dose one.
Another neglected part of managing expectations is in the awareness of vaccination benefits, which has led to refuseniks and sceptics. There are those who still wrongly believe that vaccination prevents infection and seize upon examples of those vaccinated who go on to catch Covid-19 as proof that it does not work.
This attitude reached its peak when the government’s expert adviser Yuen Kwok-yung caught Covid-19. Social media was full of comments mocking the “uselessness” of taking three or more jabs.


Door-to-door vaccine services for housebound elderly and disabled residents in Hong Kong

Door-to-door vaccine services for housebound elderly and disabled residents in Hong Kong

These cases expose the damage of having a Covid-19 policy that does not come across as being clear or certain enough. Of course, public health policy has to evolve with scientific data and in the early days of the pandemic, we needed statistics to look at before we could know what to do next.

The authorities did very well to protect Hong Kong during the first four waves of Covid-19, so much so that we probably have fewer antibodies than in other places with a more relaxed policy. But this does not mean the government cannot do better in expectation management.

Hong Kong is an international city and its residents are well-travelled and exposed, aware of the world and capable of comparing. The effect is that the Hong Kong government is under constant scrutiny and should be very careful when making promises.

In the past three years, the government has not managed to exercise a high level of caution. When the authorities first embarked on the mass vaccination programme, the expectation was that once targets were reached, borders could reopen.


Inbound travellers to Hong Kong excited about end to hotel quarantine after 2 years

Inbound travellers to Hong Kong excited about end to hotel quarantine after 2 years

But in the second half of last year, the highly infectious Omicron variant emerged and progress was interrupted. Though Omicron was thought to be milder than previous variants, the government remained understandably cautious, as a wave of hospitalisations could risk paralysing the public health system.

However, this was not a message that was clearly conveyed. Instead, the government continued with the same old messages of vaccination for protection and justified even stricter border controls. In the end, Omicron hit Hong Kong hard, overwhelming hospitals and mortuaries.

Meanwhile, Singapore, Thailand and other Southeast Asian countries began to reopen. Hongkongers started to question the Covid-19 policy, especially as rival Singapore first offered vaccines mere months before Hong Kong did.

The business community became concerned that Hong Kong’s Covid-19 policy was driving business away to Singapore. The expectations of the public and the business community in Hong Kong were rapidly changing but the government did not appear to realise this or what it meant.

Now that Hong Kong has taken its first steps towards a return to normality, the government must carefully review its Covid-19 policy, from decision-making to implementation. It is critical that the authorities effectively communicate with people and the business community, and manage and respond to their expectations, before it is too late.

John Hanzhang Ye is a PhD student in science and technology history at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities and also holds an MPhil degree in sociology from the Chinese University of Hong Kong