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Saturday, Dec 03, 2022

Time for Hong Kong to pivot to an unqualified ‘zero’ policy for travellers

Time for Hong Kong to pivot to an unqualified ‘zero’ policy for travellers

The government deserves praise for removing hotel quarantine relatively quickly, but much more must be done to return to normality. It is time for the responsibility for Covid-related health to shift back to individuals as we cannot afford to test and quarantine forever.

Twenty-one, 14, seven, 3+4, 0+3. This is not some strange derivative of a reverse Fibonacci sequence. Sadly, most Hong Kong residents probably know what these numbers mean – the dreaded number of hotel quarantine days upon arrival in the city.

There has been much speculation about when Hong Kong will implement a “0+0” entry policy, but this was not announced in Chief Executive John Lee Ka-chiu’s policy address. But what is “0+0”? It has yet to be defined.

To many, it means no hotel quarantine and the ability to go to restaurants immediately but with testing on arrival to screen for positive cases. These cases would likely receive a red code and be unable to go to office or visit restaurants and bars. It is up for debate whether the “+0” part includes medical surveillance or not.

While I applaud the current administration for its relatively rapid progression to no hotel quarantine for travellers, I am of the opinion that at this stage of the pandemic, we need to move to a full and unqualified “zero” policy. By this I mean no quarantine, no medical surveillance and, importantly, no testing.

Even the “0+0” with testing will appeal only to Hongkongers and those who have family or friends in Hong Kong they wish to visit. It won’t attract most tourists and businesspeople as they would run the risk of testing positive for Covid-19 and being unable to enter offices and restaurants. People already avoid Hong Kong because of the threat of confinement to the infamous Penny’s Bay, whether real or imagined.

As has been widely reported, our restrictive anti-pandemic measures have resulted in an exodus of both firms and talent. Regional roles require frequent travel and, as other countries have opened up, many companies have relocated their staff overseas – some temporarily, others permanently. According to a recent survey by the Hong Kong Investment Funds Association, more than a third of fund management companies have moved some or all of their regional and global roles out of Hong Kong.

Granted, stringent measures were warranted early in the pandemic when Covid-19 was more virulent and we had no vaccination or antiviral medication. Now, though, we enjoy one of the highest vaccination rates in the world, with more than 92 per cent of Hongkongers double-vaccinated.

Infectious disease experts have noted that the pandemic has entered an endemic phase in Hong Kong. As long as the evidence shows that our public health system can handle the serious infections, perhaps it is time to migrate to a “new normal”. I fear that if we don’t get rid of testing quicker and go to absolute zero, more of the damage that has been done will become permanent.

While we haven’t been standing still in easing pandemic restrictions, other places have taken advantage of our relative lack of speed. Our arch-rival Singapore started to resume quarantine-free travel for fully vaccinated people from select countries last October – a year ahead of Hong Kong.

It is no surprise then that Singapore overtook Hong Kong as Asia’s top financial centre, according to Global Financial Centres Index. We are also losing out to other places on conferences and sporting events, with the world’s largest dragon boat racing competition moved to Thailand.

Cathay Pacific’s management predicts that it will take until late 2024 or early 2025 before its business returns to pre-Covid levels. However, I am of the firm belief that we can regain lost ground if we act decisively now.

One way or another, we need to find a way to pivot to normality. It is unsustainable to test and quarantine forever, especially when most countries have completely opened up. According to Travel Off Path, there were 111 countries as of October 4 that had zero travel restrictions or entry requirements, including no tests before or after arrival, no quarantine, no ban on any countries and no vaccine requirements.

Perhaps it is time for the responsibility for Covid-related health to shift back to individuals. We can transition back to pre-pandemic times when people would abstain from work or social events and wear masks when they fell ill.

The rest of society would not have to pay the price. We would be saving the economy, the environment and people’s livelihoods and mental well-being.

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