Coronavirus: Hong Kong 'to ease isolation rules' for infected travellers, with release on fifth day instead of seventh

Passengers arriving at Hong Kong’s airport.
PHOTO: South China Morning Post

Coronavirus: Hong Kong 'to ease isolation rules' for infected travellers, with release on fifth day instead of seventh

Hong Kong residents and incoming travellers infected with Covid-19 can be released on the fifth day of isolation, instead of the seventh, from Friday if they return negative results via rapid antigen tests on the fourth and fifth day, health officials have announced.

Officials also reported 14,373 new coronavirus infections in the city on Thursday, the highest since late March.

Arrivals will still be required to take a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test upon landing and on their third day, under the current “0+3” regime of three days of medical surveillance with limited citywide movement.

However, they will only need to undergo daily rapid antigen tests for five days, instead of seven, under the new arrangement.

The isolation period for close contacts will also be cut from a week to five days.

Undersecretary for Health Dr Libby Lee Ha Yun told a press briefing on Thursday that the shortened period would also apply to unvaccinated people, who had been required to isolate or quarantine for 14 days.

Lee explained that from September to the end of November, about 30 per cent of close contacts, or 100,000 people, had turned positive with 90 per cent identified within their first five days of quarantine, regardless of vaccination status.

Despite the easing of isolation rules, Lee warned that the city’s pandemic situation was worsening, which left no room for the government to further relax social-distancing measures at the moment. The current curbs would remain in place for another two weeks, until December 28, covering the Christmas holidays.

“We are seeing an increasing trend in the daily tally, hospitalisations, death cases and severe cases, and there is no sign of easing. The pressure on the healthcare system remains high and we must stay vigilant,” Lee said.

Dr Albert Au Ka-wing of the Centre for Health Protection said the city’s daily caseload had increased by 26.2 per cent over the past week, with a 16.1 per cent rise in imported infections. However, the proportion of infected travellers remained stable at around 4 per cent.

More infections were also reported at residential care homes and schools.

Dr Larry Lee Lap Yip, a chief manager of the Hospital Authority, said the pressure on the healthcare system remained high, with more than 3,200 Covid-19 patients admitted to public hospitals. However, the proportion of patients placed on a ventilator remained at less than 1 per cent.

The easing of coronavirus curbs came a day after mainland China’s paradigm shift in its zero-Covid policy, with the Hong Kong government under pressure to further relax border controls.

In the latest move on the mainland, Covid-19 patients with mild or no symptoms are allowed to isolate at home for seven days instead of at a centralised government facility. Their close contacts can also quarantine at home for five days instead of eight.

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The mainland testing regime has also been eased such that PCR tests are only required for those in high-risk areas and occupations. Others can simply take a rapid antigen test (RAT).

Meanwhile, mainland residents no longer need to present a green health code, previously issued to PCR-negative users, when entering public places, except at hospitals, schools and care homes for the elderly.

In Hong Kong, inbound travellers serving their three-day medical surveillance cannot access venues that require mandatory vaccine pass checks, including restaurants, bars, gyms and cinemas.

However, arrivals are free to enter places which do not require vaccine pass checks, such as museums, theme parks and places of worship, under policy changes announced in mid-November. They also need to take two PCR tests and seven RATs within eight days.

The vaccine pass requirement was further tightened from Nov 30, requiring residents to have received three doses of a Covid-19 vaccine.

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.