- People who live in the same building where a positive case of the mutant strain is found can self-monitor and must be tested four times
- Close contacts who have been vaccinated can quarantine at home for a week, but contacts of variant cases must still stay in a centre for three weeks
More than 1,000 Hongkongers deemed close contacts of people who tested positive for a mutant strain of coronavirus will be eligible for release from government quarantine centres, as part of a major easing of Covid-19 rules.
Health officials also announced on Friday the shortening of mandatory quarantine for inbound passengers, starting next week, with the level of reduction dependent on the risk classification of countries in their recent travel history.
Residents subject to 21-day quarantine orders imposed on buildings linked to mutated strains – including occupants of the Royalton I in Pok Fu Lam, a block at Caribbean Coast in Tung Chung, Kornhill in Quarry Bay and Allway Gardens in Tsuen Wan – can leave the isolation centres in batches on the condition they test negative for the coronavirus.
They will need to be screened four times and complete a period of self-monitoring, according to the Centre for Health Protection’s (CHP) controller Dr Ronald Lam Man-kin.
Similar rules, also forgoing the need for any form of quarantine, will apply in future instances of variant infections being found in buildings.
All residents of such buildings will have to be tested four times during a self-monitoring period. Only those living with an infected person, or staying in environments such as subdivided flats, will have to undergo quarantine.
“With our [contact-tracing efforts] and help from members of the public, we have discovered there is not a transmission chain involving [mutant variants] that has caused a large-scale outbreak in the community,” Secretary for Food and Health Sophia Chan Siu-chee said.
“With the experiences we now have in handling cases involving mutant strains, we believe we can make adjustments and take a more precise approach,” she added.
Explaining the rules relaxation, CHP controller Lam said the latest risk assessment showed all residents of Parkes Building in Jordan, where the first local variant case was identified, had tested negative over their 21 day quarantine period that would end on Friday.
Residents can still be subjected to compulsory quarantine if two or more cases are discovered in the same building, Lam said.
Under the revised rules, close contacts who have received both doses of the Covid-19 vaccine at least 14 days earlier – and who are not linked to infected patients carrying coronavirus variants – will be able to quarantine at home, and for one week rather than the two currently in place.
Residents from Tung Chung who were put into quarantine will be allowed to leave the facilities at Penny's Bay. Photo: SCMP/ Winson Wong
Those who are close contacts of variant cases will be ordered into 14-day quarantine, rather than 21, which will still have to be completed in government facilities. They will also have to self-monitor for seven days after the two-week quarantine and take a virus test on the 19th day.
Health experts stressed the importance of antibody testing for those granted a shorter quarantine period, with one infectious disease specialist saying the government should also review its policy of isolating all residents of buildings where variants were discovered.
On Tuesday, city leader Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor said health officials were looking into whether those with two jabs could be subjected to shorter isolation periods, after some fully vaccinated residents forced into quarantine questioned why they had not been exempted after testing negative.
Professor Leo Poon Lit-man of the University of Hong Kong’s (HKU) school of public health on Friday said that shortening quarantine periods for the fully vaccinated could serve as an incentive for others to get jabbed amid what has been a sluggish start to the city’s vaccine programme.
But he also recommended antibody tests on arrival for those entering the city if exemptions were to be introduced for the vaccinated.
“For [inbound travellers], we will not know which vaccine they’ve received, or if the doses were properly injected and their [bodies] reacted well. Antibody [tests] can tell us that information,” Poon told a local radio programme.
Poon added: “If [fully vaccinated people] have a high level of antibodies, their risks are low, and shortening the quarantine period would be a reasonable move.”
However, Poon said a three-week quarantine for residents of buildings where variant cases have been found was necessary given there were past examples of Covid-19 cases spreading in the same building.
But microbiologist Dr Ho Pak-leung, also from HKU, said he believed the risks for most residents of those buildings were low.
“As long as follow-up actions are being taken within 21 days, such as virus testing, it should be very safe already,” Ho said on another radio show.
“Whether they should stay in a ‘quarantine prison’ for the [three-week] period, or stay in quarantine centres for the first seven or 14 days … then undergo [surveillance] at home … would involve risk and feasibility assessments,” he said.