This story has been made freely available as a public service to our readers. Please consider supporting SCMP’s journalism by subscribing . Hong Kong has further eased its quarantine and isolation measures following mainland China’s major shift away from its zero-Covid policy, but a continuing surge in daily infections is keeping the city from lifting social-distancing rules over the coming holiday season. From Friday, residents and arrivals infected with Covid-19 will be allowed to leave isolation on the fifth day, instead of the seventh, if they test negative for two days in a row by then. But health officials sparked disappointment in the restaurant and bar trade after saying current social-distancing measures would remain in place over Christmas, as they reported 14,373 new coronavirus cases, including 798 imported infections, on Thursday, the highest since March 19. Another 27 deaths were also recorded. As Beijing eases Covid-19 rules, experts say Hong Kong should follow suit Chief Executive John Lee Ka-chiu said the city had adjusted its policies with the “same scientific and precise principles” adopted by mainland authorities, which had announced their long-awaited easing of pandemic rules a day earlier. “I fully understand citizens’ expectations for the reopening of the [mainland] border,” Lee said during a reception. “The government will continue to discuss with the mainland, keep closely monitoring the local pandemic, optimise pandemic restrictions based on the actual situation and ensure everything moves forward in an orderly and stable manner.” Lee added that the quota for online bookings for Shenzhen quarantine hotels would be increased to 2,000 per day from Friday. Undersecretary for Health Dr Libby Lee Ha-yun denied the latest move was linked to the mainland’s policy shift, adding people should not compare pandemic measures because the situation and healthcare system capacity in both places were different. “Both the mainland and Hong Kong devise anti-pandemic strategies based on scientific data. We relaxed the measures simply because the data said so, it has nothing to do with mainland’s policy,” she told a press briefing. Under the new arrangements, Covid-19 patients and close contacts will only be required to undergo five days of isolation if their rapid antigen test (RAT) results come back negative on the fourth and fifth day. The undersecretary said the shortened period would also apply to unvaccinated people, who had been required to isolate or quarantine for 14 days. She explained that from September to the end of November, about 30 per cent of close contacts, or 100,000 people, became infected with 90 per cent identified within their first five days of quarantine, regardless of vaccination status. 400 per cent jump in number of Hongkongers taking fourth Covid-19 jab Airport arrivals, including foreign domestic helpers, will only need to undergo daily RATs for five days, instead of seven. However, they still need to take a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test upon arrival and on their third day, under the current “0+3” regime. Meanwhile, in the latest move on the mainland, Covid-19 patients with mild or no symptoms can isolate at home for five days instead of spending seven days at a centralised government facility. Their close contacts can also quarantine at home for five days instead of eight. Mainland residents no longer need to present a green health code, previously issued to PCR-negative users, when entering public places, except hospitals, schools and care homes for the elderly. Despite the local easing of isolation rules, Libby Lee warned that Hong Kong’s pandemic situation was worsening, which left no room for the government to further relax social-distancing measures at the moment. The current curbs would remain in place for another two weeks, until December 28, covering the Christmas holidays. “We are seeing an increasing trend in the daily tally, hospitalisations, death cases and severe cases, and there is no sign of easing. The pressure on the healthcare system remains high and we must stay vigilant,” Lee said. “With the rising trend of Covid-19, we consider it is not the right time to relax such requirements at this stage.” She said measures such as the vaccine pass scheme – which required a certain number of doses for entry to premises such as restaurants, bars and gyms – should remain in place to protect residents when they visited places with high risk of transmission. Hong Kong snuffs out hope to bring back fireworks display, opts for lights shows The business sector expressed disappointment about the ongoing social-distancing rules. “This will be a sad Christmas because of the restrictions and no tourists,” entertainment tycoon Allan Zeman said. “The retail and catering businesses have waited the whole year for the holiday season.” While saying he understood the government was being prudent to protect the healthcare system from collapsing, Zeman suggested dropping the amber code regime on inbound travellers for a month or two to see the impact on daily caseloads. “It’s time for the government to take a bold move as China is opening up. There is no excuse any more.” Simon Wong Ka-wo, president of the Hong Kong Federation of Restaurants and Related Trades, echoed those views. “We can see that mainland China is proactive on the return to normality, but Hong Kong seems to be overly cautious.” He said that with many Hongkongers choosing to spend their holiday overseas the industry expected a gloomy business during Christmas. “Many companies and organisations used to hold banquets at the end of the year, or during the Chinese New Year,” Wong said. “But with banquet restrictions still in place, they can hardly plan those events ahead and we are losing a lot of those businesses.” ‘It’s like being in prison’: Hongkongers unfit for Covid jabs warn of isolation Health officials also noted that the city’s daily caseload had increased by 26.2 per cent over the past week, with a 16.1 per cent rise in imported infections. However, the proportion of infected travellers remained stable at around 4 per cent. More infections were also reported at residential care homes and schools. Officials said the pressure on the healthcare system remained high, with more than 3,200 Covid-19 patients admitted to public hospitals. However, the proportion of patients placed on a ventilator remained at less than 1 per cent. Hong Kong’s total tally now stands at 2,203,790 infections and 10,891 deaths. Separately, former chief executive Leung Chun-ying tested positive for Covid-19 at the airport on Wednesday when he returned from a work trip to Singapore and Cambodia. Leung, who was isolating at home, said despite his infection, it was worthwhile to head overseas in a bid to reestablish Hong Kong’s connections with the outside world.