Hong Kong on Monday announced a road map for easing Covid restrictions on restaurants and some arriving air travellers, under a plan intended to incentivise more people to get vaccinated as community infections ease.
The plan, to be rolled out in three stages, will allow varying degrees of social distancing for restaurants depending on whether and how many doses of vaccine the staff and customers have received. The ultimate goal was a “return to normality,” Chief Executive Carrie Lam announced.
In the first stage, restaurants will be allowed to seat up to six people and operate dine-in services until midnight if all staff have received at least one jab. Lam, who was herself not wearing a mask, said mask-wearing and other pandemic prevention measures would remain in place.
The second phase will introduce “clean zones” within restaurants where fully vaccinated staff and diners can be seated in groups of up to eight and operate until 2 am. The third phase will be implemented when all customers and staff members are fully vaccinated, and may allow for groups of more than 12.
People are considered “fully vaccinated” 14 days after they have received their second dose.
Lam called the new plan a “very clear road map” for the food and beverage sector. She said the government would refrain as much as possible from “stop-and-go” tactics to try not to disrupt businesses.
A similar road map for the gradual re-opening of pubs, nightclubs and other currently closed premises will also be rolled out at a date to be confirmed, Lam said, adding the government needed to consult the industry and give the public time to get fully vaccinated.
Restaurants can currently seat only four people per table and close at 10 pm. Bars are closed altogether.
The government would also ask food premises to accept paper forms only in “exceptional cases,” and demand that most customers use the official LeaveHomeSafe tracing app, about which democrats have raised privacy concerns.
The government announced a new strategy for pandemic control, with an emphasis on targeted measures and incentivising members of the public to get vaccinated, following a relatively slow initial uptake. Fully vaccinated people will in future be able to take part in travel bubbles and visit family members in nursing homes.
“As far as the vaccine bubble, the way to put it, we are making use of vaccination as a basis of adjusting the social distancing measures, as well as the border control measures,” Lam said.
The plan will rely on the decisions of individuals and allow the government to relax Covid-19 measures without having to wait for a certain percentage of the population to be fully vaccinated.
Lam said the government was mulling stopping free testing for people who are not under a compulsory testing order, in a bid to encourage them to get vaccinated instead of being regularly tested.
“Testing will still be provided, but going forward, we will emphasise the vaccinations as a measure to protect members of the public,” she said. “We need people to know if they don’t take the vaccines, there will be certain inconveniences… this is the new vaccination strategy.”
Lam said the new scheme was not aimed at punishing people, but at returning to normality as soon as possible.
Current restrictions will remain in place for another two weeks from Wednesday. Lam said it would be up to businesses whether to follow the new arrangements, adding that current restrictions would remain in force for premises which choose not to take part.
The new plan will bar people who have not been fully vaccinated from taking part in proposed travel bubbles, Lam said. The government is still in discussions with Singapore about possible quarantine-free travel between the two cities.
Lam also announced reduced quarantine periods for arriving passengers who have been fully vaccinated from low-risk countries — including Australia, New Zealand and Singapore — from 14 days to seven days or less. Quarantine for fully-vaccinated arrivals from medium-risk places would be reduced from 21 days to 14 days or less.
Authorities would still “remain vigilant by imposing more tests” during the shortened quarantine periods, the chief executive said. The date for the reduced quarantines will be announced in due course.
The ban on scheduled flights from the UK will be lifted in early May, while two charter flights have been arranged for the end of this month to bring home Hongkongers stranded in Britain. Arrivals from the UK will still have to undergo 21 days of quarantine.
The city’s leader said the new measures were not a relaxation of pandemic measures, but a shift to a more “targeted” approach to curbing infections.
Separately, the government is planning to impose a quota for travellers from mainland China to enter Hong Kong without undergoing mandatory quarantine if they can show a negative Covid test result.
The chief executive added that the measures were dependent on the lack of a resurgence in infections after the Easter holidays at the start of this month.
Vaccination uptake in Hong Kong has lagged after several deaths were reported within days of receiving a jab. A government expert committee has found no direct causality between the jab and the deaths. Around 255,900 people had been fully vaccinated as of Monday.
Vaccines for mutations
The Hong Kong government has started to consider the next stage of the city-wide vaccination programme to procure a new generation of vaccines to better protect the public from Covid-19 mutations, Secretary for Food and Health Sophia Chan announced. Currently the city uses the China-made Sinovac and the German-made BioNTech vaccines.
Mutations which may be more infectious and more resistant to current vaccines have been detected as originating in the UK, Brazil and South Africa and have spread to numerous countries.
The government said all flights from certain countries would be banned for 14 days if they are found to have carried a set number of people affected with mutations.
“New variant strains… will threaten our effort to… control Covid and have the potential ability to undermine the efficacy of vaccines,” Chan said.
Infections involving Covid-19 mutations accounted for 67 per cent of all imported cases in March.
The new measures were announced as the city’s infections remain low. Hong Kong reported 13 new cases on Monday, 11 of which were imported, marking the third consecutive day with no local infections from an unknown source.