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Hong Kong abandons latest Covid restrictions to revive economy

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Hong Kong has lifted nearly all remaining Covid-19 restrictions and scrapped mandatory testing for arrivals, as the city aims to revive its pandemic-hit economy and catch up with Beijing’s abrupt exit from zero-Covid.

John Lee, Hong Kong’s chief executive, announced on Wednesday that travelers would no longer need to undergo PCR tests on arrival from Thursday and would only need to show evidence of a negative rapid antigen test. The ban on gatherings of more than 12 people will also be dropped, although the city’s outdoor mask mandate will remain.

“I want to tell the world that. . . Hong Kong is very normal now,” Lee told a news conference.

Close contacts of positive Covid cases will no longer be required to self-isolate at home or be quarantined in government facilities, ending what some have described as the “brutal” experience of being trapped in government centers.

The Chinese territory has imposed some of the strictest restrictions in the world to control the virus, including mandatory quarantines that have reached three weeks and a policy of separating Covid-positive children from their parents, measures that have caused concern among expatriate residents and businesses, as well as locals. .

Hong Kong only lifted hotel quarantines for overseas arrivals in September and gradually lifted other social restrictions, such as those targeting bars and restaurants, this month. Residents will no longer need to present proof of vaccination to enter these locations from Thursday.

More than 140,000 members of Hong Kong’s workforce have left in the past two years, driven out by the pandemic regime as well as Beijing’s nationwide crackdown that has crushed the city’s civil liberties.

Gary Ng, senior economist at Natixis, said the territory could experience an economic recovery once restrictions are relaxed, forecasting 3.5% to 4% growth in gross domestic product in 2023 after a projected 3.2% contraction. % this year.

“It takes time to see the real impact of reopening borders,” he said, adding that first-quarter economic data could remain dismal.

Property services firm Savills Hong Kong has estimated that retail rents could rise by as much as 5% in 2023 as travelers from mainland China and abroad gradually return.

Hong Kong’s latest easing comes after China this month ended the government’s centralized quarantine for Covid patients and this week announced it would lift the lockdown for travelers arriving next month, even as it battles its biggest outbreak of the pandemic.

Tens of millions of people are catching the virus every day in China, where hospitals have been overwhelmed by a wave of elderly patients and authorities have stopped releasing daily Covid case counts.

“When the government decided on a policy change to live with the virus, those measures will have to be abandoned at some point,” said Leo Poon, head of the division of public health laboratory sciences at the University of Hong Kong.

Hong Kong will also start reopening its border with the mainland in stages from Jan. 15, Lee said, a week after China lifted its entry quarantine requirement. Cross-border activity has been halted for the past three years, stifling the territory’s economy.

More than 2.5 million of Hong Kong’s population of 7.4 million have contracted the virus, Lee said, meaning the city would be able to manage the risks because of its past exposure. Hong Kong experienced its worst outbreak this spring, when it recorded the highest death rate in the world. Cases have remained high since then, with the city reporting 19,689 new local cases and 59 deaths as of Wednesday the previous day.

Some health experts and lawmakers have called for Hong Kong to drop its mask rule, following the model of Singapore, Taiwan and Japan.

But Health Secretary Lo Chung-mau insisted the mask requirement would protect residents “from flu and other respiratory tract infections” and would remain in place until the end of winter.

“We balance the benefits and costs,” he said.