Live music to return to Hong Kong venues, possible increase in cap on public gatherings from 4 to 12
- ‘On the road to normalcy, we hope we won’t go back and forth when we roll out policies,’ Undersecretary for Health Libby Lee says
- Authorities concerned about rise in imported cases after mandatory hotel quarantine for arrivals was dropped in late September, insider says
Live performances in Hong Kong entertainment venues will restart from next week and authorities are considering increasing the cap on public gatherings to 12 people, up from the four allowed at present, as coronavirus infection numbers stabilise.
The announcement on Thursday came as health officials confirmed 5,622 infections, including 387 imported ones, and eight more related deaths. The last time the daily number of cases broke the 5,000 mark was on September 24.
Undersecretary for Health Libby Lee Ha-yun said officials would follow several principles in further opening up the city, including limiting the effects of a possible rebound in cases, such as the burden on the public healthcare system, and prioritising policies that benefited the economy.
“On the road to normalcy, we hope we won’t go back and forth when we roll out policies,” she said. “We hope to relax our policies in an orderly manner and closely monitor the impact on the epidemic after relaxation, and review it every two weeks.”
From October 20, restaurants, bars, nightclubs, hotels and other types of venues would be allowed to host live performances, provided the entertainers took polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests twice a week and a rapid antigen test (RAT) on the day of the show, Lee said. Performers must also wear masks and maintain physical distance from the audience as much as possible, she added.
But any relaxation of the cap on public gatherings, kept at four people almost since the pandemic started, would only take effect once officials reviewed the anti-pandemic ordinance, Lee maintained.
Undersecretary Lee noted that since hotel quarantine was scrapped on September 26, the number of daily imported cases had increased by about 100 and the proportion of infected inbound travellers had grown from 3 per cent to 5 per cent.
The reproductive rate of the virus had also risen above one, she added, meaning that an infected patient was able to infect one person or more.
Officials also reported 23 more infections involving the more transmissible XBB subvariant of Omicron, taking the total to 29 since the first one was detected on Monday.
Government pandemic adviser Professor David Hui Shu-cheong agreed with the move to ease measures, saying the city’s high vaccination rates and acquired immunity could prevent a fresh surge in cases.
Respiratory medicine specialist Dr Leung Chi-chiu said Hong Kong was experiencing a “golden time” to gradually relax rules, provided no large rebound in cases occurred putting pressure on the healthcare system.
While some in the pro-establishment camp said they expected local authorities to approach the situation cautiously ahead of a twice-a-decade congress of China’s Communist Party on Sunday, several health experts suggested the city could lift all entry restrictions and minimise testing requirements for travellers as most imported cases were detected upon arrival.
Several government sources said city leader Lee was seeking to manage expectations that a further easing of curbs would not come soon, despite business leaders and political pundits predicting “groundbreaking” measures to be announced in his maiden policy address next Wednesday.
“It is quite unlikely that there will be further relaxation on the three days of home medical surveillance next week, as the government needs to gather more scientific data,” said an insider familiar with the discussions.
“Even if there is further relaxation, say before November, arrivals will still have to undergo polymerase chain reaction tests, especially in view of the emergence of new variants.”
Another source said that while “the situation remains fluid”, the government was concerned about the increase in imported cases after mandatory hotel quarantine for arrivals was axed in September.
Under the current rules, inbound travellers must undergo a PCR test upon arrival and another three on their second, fourth and sixth days in the city. Anyone who receives a positive result is required to quarantine at home or in a hotel or government facility.
During the surveillance period, arrivals may stay at home or in a hotel but are barred from entering venues covered by the city’s vaccine pass scheme, such as bars and restaurants, for the three days.
The Post learned that Lee last Thursday held a meeting with all government health advisers, asking them not to openly support a “0+0” surveillance period as authorities did not want to be seen as being pressured by sectors or give the impression they were “lying flat”, or doing nothing.
A source who attended the meeting said the government wanted to maintain the PCR tests even if the “0+3” plan was later phased out, with the health experts asked to respect the decision.
One health adviser, who asked not to be named, said Hong Kong could afford to further ease entry restrictions, as the level of virus transmission was relatively low and the city had high levels of protection resulting from its inoculation drives and natural immunity among residents from past infections.
“The government could take things slowly, or even request PCR tests for arrivals, but shouldn’t force experts not to speak according to science,” the adviser said.
During an internal meeting with ministers on Friday, Lee said bureaus needed to promote the “0+3” policy actively, and report to him what they had achieved, as part of his way to manage public expectations.
Over the weekend, at least eight bureaus – including tourism, commerce, transport, home and youth affairs, and education – touted the new measure on Facebook.
Dr Joseph Tsang Kay-yan, co-chairman of the Medical Association’s advisory committee on communicable diseases, questioned whether any scientific evidence was available to back up the reluctance to move to a “0+0” regime.
“Scientifically, it does not appear that scrapping the three days of home surveillance would make a lot of difference,” he said.
Tsang also said multiple PCR tests, which would involve queuing up at a community screening centre or submitting a self-administered deep throat swab to officials, would not appeal to tourists.
“We are now at a strange halfway house, as businesses have pointed out, that we are still some way away from returning to normal, and lag behind Asia, let alone the world in opening up, which puts us at the back of the queue when it comes to attracting tourists,” Tsang said.
Leung, the expert, took issue with Lee’s warning on Tuesday that imported caseloads had increased threefold since the shift to “0+3”.
“We have started from a low base, so increasing from 100 cases a day to around 300 still means the imported caseload is dwarfed by local infections,” Leung said.
Leung attributed the rise in cases to an increase in detection, saying most infections were found during tests conducted on arrivals at the airport.
“As they are picked up at the airport, there is little difference in risk between a ‘0+3’ or a ‘0+0’ arrangement,” he said.
Business tycoon Allan Zeman, who supports the “0+0” arrangement, said he suspected the government needed more time to analyse data, especially as infection figures had been fluctuating.
“I guess the government still knows there is a need to open up for tourism, especially when there are some international events in November,” he said.
“But at the same time, they have to consider Beijing’s feelings, when the party congress is coming, and Beijing may have new directions on whether the country will open up.”
Lee on Tuesday had cautioned against pushing ahead with lifting three days of medical surveillance for inbound travellers, saying “a steady and orderly” approach was needed.
He also explained that his administration would need to pay attention to a variety of considerations as they developed new policies, such as the healthcare system’s ability to cope and the emergence of new variants around the world.
The city’s Covid-19 tally stands at 1,821,754 infections and 10,254 fatalities.