All Hong Kong residents returning from eight southern African countries will be required to quarantine for seven days at government facilities and undergo daily Covid-19 testing before serving 14 days of hotel quarantine, health authorities announced on Monday.

It comes as international concern mounts over the new “omicron” variant first detected in South Africa last week. Scientists worldwide are investigating whether the new strain, which contains more mutations than previous variants, is more transmissible and resistant to current vaccines.

New temporary specimen collection centre at the Hong Kong International Airport. File photo: GovHK.

Travellers from Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, and Zimbabwe who are not Hong Kong residents and have not been fully vaccinated will be banned from entering the city.

Secretary for Food and Health Sophia Chan said mandatory Covid testing during hotel quarantine will become more frequent, while testing capabilities will also be bolstered to contain the spread of the new variant.

“We will stay on guard and adopt the most stringent pandemic control measures and stop variant from entering our local community,” she said on Monday.

Hong Kong has reported three confirmed cases involving the Omicron virus since its emergence last Wednesday – all were detected during hotel quarantine. The three affected persons are currently being held in isolation at North Lantau Hospital and are in stable condition.

Penny’s Bay Covid-19 quarantine centre on Lantau. File photo: GovHK.

Chan said the rapid detection of the three cases was proof that the city’s anti-pandemic travel restrictions, some of the more stringent in the world, are working.

“The Omicron virus strain is already affecting many parts of the world… Hong Kong has successfully stopped the transmission of the cases we have identified… going into the community,” she said. “That tells us that our existing system of designated quarantine hote[s]l… is robust and we can stop any transmission.”

She added that other “high-risk” countries with confirmed Omicron cases may be similarly subject to the more stringent quarantine arrangements as the global situation develops. Authorities did not rule out applying the tougher rules to other countries as more information becomes available.

Colorised scanning electron micrograph of an apoptotic cell (red) infected with Covid-19. File photo: NIAID-RML.

Controller of the Centre for Health Protection Edwin Tsui said the “seven plus 14” arrangements for the Omicron-risk countries was to “strike a balance” between the containing the risk and the need to provide a sustainable arrangement if the arrangement is extended to cover arrivals from more countries.

Tsui said there were currently under 100 reported cases of the new variant worldwide, and more information was needed before implementing further regulations: “So far, there aren’t too many cases, and scientists are looking at the transmissibility of the variant strain – I believe we need to see more data.”

Hong Kong reported three new infections on Monday, all of which were imported. In all, Hong Kong has seen 12,431 cases since the onset of the virus, and 213 deaths.

Mainland re-opening ‘ongoing’

Chan said negotiations to resume quarantine-free travel with the mainland were “still ongoing.”

“We are actually continuing the preparation of such work accordingly,” she said. “We do not see that there are major issues affecting such preparation work right now.”

Photo: GovHK.

She added that the authorities will “continue to monitor the global situation and put in further stringent measures as it becomes necessary.”

Local and central authorities have been in negotiations to re-open the mainland borders, which saw a mainland delegation of health experts tour the city’s anti-pandemic facilities last week.

An HKFP-commissioned public survey last week found 50 per cent of Hongkongers surveyed preferred to see travel resumed with the mainland before international travel.

Rhoda Kwan

Rhoda Kwan is HKFP's Assistant Editor. She has previously written for TimeOut Hong Kong and worked at Meanjin, a literary journal. She holds a double bachelor’s degree in Law and Literature from the University of Hong Kong.