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Hong Kong CEO Carrie Lam. Picture: BLOOMBERG/LAM YIK
Hong Kong CEO Carrie Lam. Picture: BLOOMBERG/LAM YIK

Hong Kong CEO Carrie Lam acknowledged travel restrictions could harm the city’s reputation as a global financial hub, but stressed that even a single fatality from Covid-19 would be a major cause for concern, underscoring the ultra-strict “Covid Zero” approach that has frustrated global businesses.

In an interview with Bloomberg Television on Monday, Lam said she was “duty bound to protect my people” with travel restrictions even as other finance centers such as Singapore open up and shift to a strategy of living with the virus.

“Of course, I am concerned and we are working very hard to resume normal travel in a gradual and orderly manner, both with the mainland of China and with overseas places,” Lam said, adding that most companies were in Hong Kong to access the mainland.  

“As the chief executive of Hong Kong, I am also duty bound to protect my people. So, any fatality or increase in fatality will cause a major concern in society,” she said. The city has recorded about 30 Covid-19 deaths this year, with the last fatality on Sept. 13.

Lam’s government has implemented a strict “Covid Zero” policy in order to reopen the border with China. That approach, which doesn’t tolerate any local infections, has increasingly strained the city’s longstanding reputation as a regional hub and an economic and financial gateway to China.

Mainland officials want Hong Kong to more closely follow their own strict approach to stamping out the virus locally to prevent the city from becoming a “weak link” for Covid-19 infections, she said.  

“From the mainland perspective, the practices adopted in Hong Kong should be as aligned as possible with the mainland practices, but they’ve also accepted that we are operating under very different regime,” she said. “The discussions between the two sides are meant to find a way forward that, respecting the differences in the systems between the two places, that there could be assurance that we will not be sort of the weak link in terms of Covid-19 control.”

While Hong Kong has barely had any local coronavirus cases in recent months, there is growing frustration among foreign business chambers and residents about the city’s refusal to relax border curbs that require returning travelers to spend as long as 21 days in a mandatory hotel quarantine even if they are fully vaccinated. 

As other global cities such as New York and London open up, mainland officials still haven’t provided Hong Kong with any clear metrics or benchmarks that could see travel restrictions eased. One of Lam’s advisers recently told Bloomberg that the city’s “hands are tied.”   

Lam said Monday, however, that the two sides had held “a very good and positive meeting” on reopening the border. “We have agreed a set of parameters based on which we can move on to the next stage of discussing how we could gradually resume,” she said, adding that achieving a “very high vaccination rate” was one such condition. “Right now, we are still not up to 70% so we have to do much better.”

Lam last week delivered what she said “may be” her last annual policy address after a tumultuous term that saw disruptive anti-government protests, a national security law met by widespread international criticism and the Covid-19 pandemic, which worsened a recession and led to unprecedented border controls in the top Asian financial hub. She hasn’t said whether she will seek a second five-year term.

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


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