Hong Kong businessman Sam Wong, 60, has scrapped his holiday plans.
An executive director at China Renewable Energy, Wong was booked to fly to the U.S. to spend Christmas with his two children who are studying there. He hasn’t seen them in six months. One week before his flight, the Hong Kong government declared that travelers returning from the U.S. would have to spend a week of quarantine in spartan isolation camps, before serving out another 14 days in a hotel room they pay for themselves. Travelers from the U.K. face the same prospect, the South China Morning Post reported Monday.
The escalation in what were already some of the world’s strictest travel curbs, along with the threat of omicron, difficulties in getting a hotel room and other uncertainties, robbed Wong of his holiday spirit.
“It’s stressful and frustrating to travel,” he said. “My children will have to spend Christmas on their own.”
The new policy, which took effect Monday, is being applied to the U.S. because city authorities found a single traveler with the omicron variant who had flown in from Los Angeles on Dec. 7.
Given the growing number of omicron cases, more countries could well be shifted to the same system, sparking chaos during the busiest travel season as families try to reunite for the holidays.
At a time when the world is progressing in reopening efforts, Hong Kong is pushing in the other direction. The strategy, which has choked off travel to a city once known for its connectedness, is adding to concern in the business community that a COVID-Zero policy even stricter than in parts of mainland China is causing long-term damage to Hong Kong’s status as a financial center.
“It isolates Hong Kong even further as the rest of the world is getting back to business,” Tara Joseph, president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong, wrote in a text message.
International business groups have warned that draconian quarantine rules jeopardize the city’s competitiveness and may lead companies to move to places like Singapore that have abandoned efforts to eliminate the virus by locking out most of the world.
“Hong Kong had been known as a connected city — it advertised being Asia’s World City,” Joseph said. “That is clearly no longer the case.”
In its statement announcing the new policy for returnees from the U.S., the government boasted of its success in keeping the city COVID-free. “Hong Kong has in place the most stringent inbound prevention and control measures in the world that enabled the successful prevention of the omicron variant from entering the community,” it said.
The U.S. and U.K. join South Africa and about 10 other African countries on the list for Penny’s Bay, the location of government quarantine camps near Hong Kong Disneyland. Rooms are basic and while three meals a day are provided, internet access isn’t.
With the failure of Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s government to convince many senior citizens to get vaccinated, experts warn that Hong Kong may need even more travelers to spend time at its isolation centers.
“As the border control is the key defense line in Hong Kong against omicron, we cannot take any chance,” said Leung Chi-chiu, former chairman of the Hong Kong Medical Association’s advisory committee on communicable diseases.
Fewer than 20% of people in Hong Kong aged 80 and above have received at least a first dose. In a city of 7.4 million people, only about 260,000 have received boosters.
The relatively low vaccination rate, coupled with widespread social mixing, would make the city “a fertile ground for COVID-19 transmission once the border control is breached,” Leung said.
Since the first two instances of omicron cases in Hong Kong involved transmission at a quarantine hotel, the government should consider going even further and require all travelers to go to Penny’s Bay and other centers, said Benjamin Cowling, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Hong Kong.
“There is much lower risk of within-facility transmission in Penny’s Bay than in the Designated Quarantine Hotels,” he said. “It would be even more ideal if Penny’s Bay could be expanded or a similar facility could be constructed with 30,000 or more rooms, and then we could reduce quarantine for all arrivals to a maximum of 14 days with perhaps a shorter quarantine for very low risk arrivals.”
Officials from Hong Kong and mainland China have been negotiating the reopening of the border to quarantine-free travel.
Border controls won’t be enough to protect the city, said Nicholas Thomas, associate professor in health security at the City University of Hong Kong.
“Given the increasingly endemic nature of the delta and omicron variants, it is unlikely that these measures can be anything more than a stop-gap effort,” Thomas said, “especially as it is likely to reach mainland China within the next few months.”
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