SCMP: Coronavirus – Hong Kong drops on-arrival PCR tests and vaccine pass 12-28-2022
Hong Kong has taken the most dramatic steps yet to drop almost all Covid-19 measures from Thursday, including axing mandatory polymerase chain reaction (PCR) Covid-19 tests for inbound travellers, the vaccine pass scheme and quarantine requirements for close contacts following similar action by mainland China.
The mask mandate, however, will stay in place, Chief Executive John Lee Ka-chiu said on Wednesday.
“About 2.5 million people have been infected and [when the vaccination rate reaches] 94 per cent, the pandemic risks are controllable,” he said. “We will not return to the old road [of tightening pandemic control].”
Those arriving into Hong Kong will now need to just present negative results from PCR or Rapid Antigen Tests (RAT) conducted within 48 or 24 hours respectively.
The current 12-person ban on public gatherings would be scrapped.
Lee revealed the latest measures on Wednesday afternoon, at a press conference attended also by health secretary Lo Chung-mau and Centre for Health Protection controller Edwin Tsui Lok-kin.
“The Hong Kong SAR government will keep relaxing pandemic restrictions but will not give up its anti-epidemic work,” Lo vowed.
Infected individuals will still be required to undergo a five-day isolation and can only be released after showing negative results on rapid antigen tests (RAT) on the fourth and fifth days.
Beijing earlier announced it would scrap mandatory quarantine and reopen borders from next month, with its National Immigration Administration set to start issuing tourist and business visas to allow Chinese nationals to enter Hong Kong.
From January 8, all incoming travellers to mainland China are only required to present a negative PCR test within 48 hours, without undergoing any quarantine or post-arrival test.
Close contacts are currently required to undergo five days of home quarantine and daily RAT. They can only be released after testing negative on the fifth day.
Incoming travellers have to undergo a PCR test on the first and third day of arrival, and are recommended to conduct daily RATs until the fifth day, with their first day in the city considered Day 0.
The vaccine pass scheme came into effect on February 24, and has been tightened over the year, requiring residents as young as five to be triple-jabbed to enter premises citywide.
In November, authorities dropped mandatory vaccine pass checks at certain venues, including theme parks and museums.
‘Beware of fake news’
Responding to whether “white lungs” and new variants had appeared among Covid-19 patients on the mainland, Lo urged the public to beware of the unverified information and speculation online, as well as to verify sources.
He said Omicron subvariants were still the prevalent strain on the mainland and there were no new virus variants.
Edwin Tsui, controller of the Centre for Health Protection, said the authorities had sufficient stock of paracetamol, with enough for the six months ahead.
He called on residents to stop being picky about the brands when buying pain-relief and fever medicine, as many generic drugs contained paracetamol.
Risk-based planning key to success
John Lee attributed the success of anti-pandemic efforts to the government’s comprehensive and risk-based planning.
“We were able to hold a lot of large-scale events using a targeted approach,” Lee said. “Professor Lo has been very successful in doing risk assessment and implementing precise strategies, that’s how we have come to this stage, when we are able to relax the measures in an orderly manner.”
He stressed: “Everything is planned.”
School rules to be adjusted
John Lee said anti-pandemic rules for schools would also be adjusted and the Education Bureau would make the announcement in due course.
He added that students remained a high-risk group as the vaccination rate among children was relatively lower and they spent a large amount of time together at schools, which might increase the risk of exposure and clusters.
Masks here to stay
The chief executive said the mask mandate was here to stay as the city was now in the middle of a winter flu surge.
He said the city also had to remain vigilant against the emergence of new mutant strains, and mask-wearing could effectively protect people against them.
Hongkongers to have priority healthcare access
Hong Kong residents will have priority access to the city’s healthcare system, while non-residents will be charged HK$1,230 for emergency ward services in public hospitals. Non-residents will have to consult private clinics for services and oral medicines such as Paxlovid. Those who visit public hospitals must pay at least HK$6,000 for each treatment. Hong Kong residents will have access to Covid-19 medication free of charge.
“We have to protect medical services and resources to ensure that the public is being protected,” Lo noted.
He said the Hospital Authority had been strengthening its capacity and ability to deal with emergencies, adding that it would continue its collaboration with the private sector.
The city’s healthcare system had sufficient supply of medicine containing paracetamol, he added, saying that doctors would prescribe drugs precisely to ensure stocks remained sufficient.
Travel curbs dropped
Lee said there would be no more PCR tests for all arrivals, including those from mainland China, Taiwan and Macau. Inbound travellers only need to conduct a daily RAT for five consecutive days.
No more social distancing
Lee said all rules but the mask mandate would be cancelled. This means the quarantine order for close contacts, use of vaccine pass, dining restrictions such as a distance of 1.5 metres between two tables, and any limits on capacity of restaurants as well as other targeted premises will be lifted.
People are still required to wear masks in public places and on public transport.
Bye bye, vaccine pass
The vaccine pass scheme will be dropped from Thursday, with Lo saying the city had built a strong immunity barrier and achieved an ideal vaccination rate at 94 per cent, an important basis for the resumption of socio-economic activities.
“From now, we will focus on lifting the vaccination rate of the elderly and children for greater protection,” Lo said.