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The Hong Kong city skyline. Picture: 123RF/SEAN PAVONE
The Hong Kong city skyline. Picture: 123RF/SEAN PAVONE

A major business group has issued an unprecedented open letter warning Hong Kong’s leader that her strict quarantine rules leave residents trapped in the city, threatening its standing as a global finance hub. 

The European Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong sent the letter to Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam on Thursday, calling the city’s newly-tightened quarantine rules this week a “significant setback” after a quickly-abandoned attempt to relax some of the world’s strictest requirements for inbound travellers. 

The business group called on Hong Kong, which has been pursuing a “Covid Zero” strategy of stamping out all local cases, to create and communicate a clear exit plan for the pandemic that focuses on vaccinations, getting the local economy back to normal and reconnecting with the world.

“We are of the view that Hong Kong must open itself sooner rather than later or this new quarantine regime could lead many in the international community to question if they want to remain indefinitely trapped in Hong Kong when the rest of the world is moving on,” Frederik Gollob, chairman of the chamber’s board of directors, wrote. “This concern among the international business community could pose, undoubtedly, a growing threat to Hong Kong’s status as an international business centre.”

Hong Kong has been successful in keeping Covid-19 cases and deaths low with a mix of strict requirements for returning residents. The rules include mandatory quarantine hotel stays of as long as 21 days, as well as rigid testing and isolation policies that require infected people to be hospitalised and most close contacts sent to quarantine facilities. Most visitors, whether for business or tourism, aren’t allowed. 

The government’s attempt to relax these measures in August — allowing in non-residents for the first time in more than a year and cutting quarantine to just seven days for some vaccinated travellers — was quickly abandoned this week, throwing travel plans into chaos. The city has said the new rules, including reclassifying countries like the US as high-risk destinations, are necessary after global outbreaks of the more transmissible Delta strain.   

The backtrack has come amid rising frustration in a city that is dealing with some of the world’s strictest travel rules and a gradual political tightening under a China-imposed national security law. The American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong said 42% of respondents in a May survey were considering or planning on moving out of Hong Kong, with people citing both the security legislation and coronavirus-related travel rules. Last week, Hong Kong reported a record drop in its population over the last 12 months, with an outflow of nearly 90,000 residents.

The city has allowed some exemptions to the travel rules, which sparked their own outcries. 

Hollywood actor Nicole Kidman and four members of her entourage were allowed to skip quarantine to shoot a television series in the city, Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development Edward Yau told reporters. He defended the decision, saying there was no breach of the established exemption rules.

The EU chamber — an umbrella group that represents countries including the UK, Germany, France and Spain — said Hong Kong was now reacting “out of proportion” to isolated cases of Covid-19 in the city. The city failed to understand the “new normal” in which the virus is treated as endemic but tolerable, given that vaccination lower the risk of severe cases or death.

The chamber recommended that Hong Kong communicate a clear exit strategy to the pandemic that could “restore confidence” and enable residents to plan ahead, step up flagging vaccination efforts and continue to relax quarantine measures for vaccinated people.

Bloomberg News. More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com

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