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Travellers have persistently complained about the current arrangements. Photo: Xiaomei Chen

Coronavirus: Hong Kong cuts quarantine period to 2 weeks for high-risk countries but that’s still too long for business travellers, industry groups say

  • Chief Executive Carrie Lam concedes cutting period by seven days will not be enough to satisfy business community
  • Quarantine move comes after persistent complaints from travellers and companies paying high quarantine costs for employees

Business leaders have expressed disappointment at a decision by Hong Kong authorities to only ease the quarantine period for travellers entering the city to 14 days and extend Covid-19 social-distancing curbs for two more weeks.

While welcoming the shortened quarantine requirements for inbound visitors from 162 high-risk places from February 5, the city’s largest trade body, the Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce, said the isolation period, reduced from three weeks, was still too long for business travellers.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor described it as a science-based decision because the highly infectious Omicron variant had a relatively short incubation period.

But the chamber’s CEO George Leung Siu-kay told the Post the quarantine period was too much although the reduction would help ease some stresses.

Hong Kong eases quarantine rules for arrivals, extends social-distancing rules

“Two weeks’ quarantine remains too long for business travellers. This certainly should help alleviate some of the stress on cross-border business operations and talent shortages due to the lockdown,” he said.

Lam conceded that cutting the quarantine period by seven days would not be enough to satisfy the business community but further reduction would be “a very dangerous move” for Hong Kong given the relatively low vaccination rate especially among the elderly.

Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam. Photo: Dickson Lee

David Graham, executive director of the British Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong, said he hoped flight bans on eight countries – Australia, Canada, France, India, Pakistan, the Philippines, Britain and the United States – since last December would be lifted soon. Lam extended the ban for two more weeks to February 18.

“The easing of travel restrictions will certainly alleviate some of the current pressures that businesses are navigating in particular around retaining and hiring talent into [Hong Kong],” he said.

“We are optimistic for the future of Hong Kong, but this is just the start of what is needed for business confidence and recovery.”

Lam, confirming an earlier Post report on the quarantine move, also said on Thursday existing social-distancing curbs would remain in place until February 17. In-person school classes will remain suspended for two more weeks until February 21.

She urged more people, especially the elderly, to get Covid-19 jabs ahead of the roll-out of so-called vaccination passports on February 24.

Formerly known as the vaccine bubble, the passport is a record of a person’s vaccination status that will be required for dining at restaurants and entering government premises and entertainment facilities.

The city’s daily Covid-19 caseload soared to 164 on Thursday, the most recorded in a single day since the pandemic began in January 2020.

The move to shorten the quarantine period came after persistent complaints from travellers and companies paying high quarantine costs for employees.

But Lam said authorities did not make the decision under pressure from the business community.

The new arrangements will allow people to spend the first two weeks at quarantine hotels and another seven days under medical surveillance at home. During the surveillance period, they are allowed to go out.

“It is purely based on science because the incubation period of Omicron is relatively short,” Lam said, adding the quarantine period had already been shortened for close contacts of confirmed Covid-19 cases.

“There is no logic, no consistency if we still impose the 21 days on arrivals as they are not even close contacts.”

The government will also scrap the highest-risk category of nations and places deemed to pose an Omicron threat, which required returning residents to quarantine at Penny’s Bay for four days before moving to a designated hotel for another 17 days of observation.

Omicron: Hongkongers in lockdown complain of pay cuts, job loss

Instead, travellers from those countries will be treated the same as ones from high-risk countries.

Last June when the pandemic situation had stabilised, the quarantine period for high-risk countries was cut to 14 days for travellers who could produce a positive antibody test. Those returning from lower-risk countries only needed to quarantine for seven days.

Earlier this month, Hong Kong cut the quarantine period of patients’ close contacts from 21 days to 14, citing reasons of pressure on the city’s quarantine facilities and the shorter incubation period of Omicron.

While some travellers welcomed Thursday’s decision, Alison Pickett was among those booked on a return flight just three days before the launch of the new rules.

Pickett, who is British and has lived in Hong Kong for 34 years, flew with her husband last July to Italy, where they have a home. The pair planned to stay there two months initially, but delayed their return to Hong Kong when the quarantine for arrivals rose to 21 days.

However, with her French sculptor husband due to have an exhibit in Hong Kong next month, the couple could not wait any further, and therefore booked their current February flight back.

Pickett, an art consultant, said she had already rebooked her flight four times, and had been on hold with the airline for five hours at one point.

They have decided to stick to their plan and come back before the shortened quarantine rules take effect, rather than risk another flight ban, which happened with their airline last month, or fail to secure a new hotel booking.

“We have braced ourselves for three weeks,” she said. “It’s just incredibly frustrating for me and thousands of other people.”

On the local businesses front, food and catering sector lawmaker Tommy Cheung Yu-yan said the government failed to throw a lifeline to the industry by extending the dine-in dinner curfew to February 17, instead of relaxing the rules.

“I feel extremely disappointed,” Cheung, also an executive councillor, said. “Restaurants missed the entire golden season for Lunar New Year and Valentine’s Day, and they stand to lose HK$20 billion in revenue. I don’t think they will survive.”

Hong Kong Community Foundation will give away 1,000 gift packs to those in Penny’s Bay. Photo: SCMP

Meanwhile, NGO Hong Kong Community Foundation will hand out 1,000 gift packs on Friday and Saturday to those in compulsory quarantine at the Penny’s Bay facility.

“We hope to extend care and blessings to our friends in the Penny’s Bay quarantine centre. We are thinking of them during Lunar New Year … We hope these festive goodies can bring some joy and comfort. Blessings to all,” foundation chairman Daryl Ng Win-kong said.

Additional reporting by Gary Cheung and Elizabeth Cheung