Hong Kong will axe the hotel quarantine requirement for inbound travellers from next Monday, marking the end to a Covid-19 policy blamed for undermining the city’s international status.

Chief Executive John Lee (right) and Secretary for Health Lo Chung-mau meet the press on September 23, 2022 to announce the government’s decision to axe Covid-19 hotel quarantine arrangement for inbound travellers. Photo: Hillary Leung/HKFP.

From September 26, inbound travellers will be subject to a “0+3” arrangement, Chief Executive John Lee said during a press conference on Friday.

Under the new arrangement, arrivals will no longer be required to isolate in a designated quarantine hotel. Instead, inbound travellers can choose to undergo three days of “medical surveillance” at home or at a hotel, during which they will be allowed to go out, subject to PCR requirements.

A PCR test will still be required upon arrival at Hong Kong International Airport, but arrivals will be allowed to head home or to a hotel immediately – without waiting for the test result – using their preferred means of transportation, including public transport, as opposed to taking designated taxis and buses.

“It would be ‘test and go,’ instead of ‘test and hold’,” the city’s leader said.

Photo: GovHK.

After receiving a negative result from that initial test, travellers will be issued an amber QR code in the LeaveHomeSafe contact tracing app. For three days, arrivals can leave their residences, but will be restricted from certain premises under the Vaccine Pass scheme, including restaurants and bars.

See also: Covid-19: Hong Kong issues red QR codes to confirmed cases, amber codes for international arrivals

Travellers are expected to take four PCR tests in their first week upon arrival. The tests would be conducted on the day when they arrive, that is day zero, and again on day two, day four and day six.

Provided the result of the day two PCR test is negative, arrivals will be issued a blue QR code after the third day, removing all restrictions imposed under the amber code.

Photo: GovHK.

The government also scrapped the policy of requiring travellers to present a negative PCR test result 48 hours before boarding a flight to Hong Kong. Instead, they only need to show a negative result from a rapid test conducted within 24 hours before their flight.

“[This policy change] would relieve travellers from their current struggle of finding PCR test services overseas,” Lee said.

“Let me emphasise the SAR government’s anti-epidemic policies… which include not ‘lying flat’ to control the number of confirmed cases and ensure the medical system’s capacity,” Lee said, using a term that originated in mainland China to mean doing a little as possible.

Authorities have been focused on reducing Covid-related deaths and severe cases, protecting high-risk groups such as children and the elderly, and balancing risks and economic momentum, Lee added.

A designated taxi for carrying Covid-19 patients. Photo: GovHK,.

Hong Kong residents who are not fully vaccinated will also be allowed to return, Lee announced on Friday. The group would need to follow existing procedures to obtain a Vaccine Pass. Additionally, the limit on the number of people allowed to enter the city from mainland China and Macau as part of the Come2hk and the Return2hk scheme would be lifted.

The latest policy changes came after the government decided that the transmission risk from inbound travellers was neither higher nor lower than the risk of local transmission.

Lee said his administration also took into account people’s livelihood, economic activities, Hong Kong’s competitiveness and other factors.

“Under the situation where we can control the trend of the pandemic, [we seek to] give the maximum room for Hong Kong to connect with the world, to give society the biggest economic momentum and reduce inconvenience for inbound travellers. We don’t wish to backtrack,” the Hong Kong leader told the press.

An end to strict entry requirements

The city currently mandates a “3+4” measure, implemented in August, requiring arrivals to spend three nights in a quarantine hotel at their own expense followed by four nights of medical surveillance at home.

In line with Covid-19 policies in mainland China, Hong Kong has maintained – though gradually relaxed – strict pandemic measures since the virus was first reported in the city in January 2020. Border restrictions soon followed, with quarantine arrangements introduced in March that year.

When the city’s Covid-19 travel rules were at their strictest, arrivals had to spend 21 days in a designated quarantine hotel.

One of Hong Kong’s designated quarantine hotels. File photo: Mercedes Hutton/HKFP.

Friday’s announcement came ahead of a major two-day financial summit in November, organised by the Hong Kong Monetary Authority, which is expected to attract high-level executives from top banks globally. In July, authorities said that conditional, quarantine-free travel could be allowed in time for the event.

‘Off the map’

Hong Kong’s stringent Covid-19 policies strike a sharp contrast to the rest of the world, which has largely loosened rules and resumed normalcy. The city continues to enforce a four person limit in public, to make face masks compulsory outdoors, and to mandate the use of a contact tracing app to enter certain premises.

Its quarantine requirements for incoming arrivals, in particular, have been criticised for being at odds with the city’s cherished reputation as a global financial hub.

A HSBC branch in Central. Photo: Hillary Leung/HKFP.

The International Air Transport Association, a trade association representing almost 300 of the world’s airlines, said in April that Hong Kong was “effectively off the map.”

Business groups and tycoons have called on the city to relax its measures. Earlier this month, Hong Kong’s former commerce secretary Frederick Ma and billionaire Peter Woo, the chairperson of property giant The Wharf, urged authorities to reopen Hong Kong’s borders.

Leading University of Hong Kong microbiologist Ho Pak-leung said on a radio show last month that there was “room” for the government to cancel its hotel quarantine requirements. The risk of contracting Covid-19 posed by travellers and the risk of being infected in the local community was around the same, he explained.

Ho added that even if travellers carried a different Covid-19 strain, the impact they would have on virus transmission would be minimal.

In June, China’s top office for handling Hong Kong affairs said consolidating the city’s international competitiveness was one area in which the government should “take greater action.”

Additional reporting: Kelly Ho

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Hillary Leung

Hillary has an interest in social issues and politics. Previously, she reported on Asia broadly - including on Hong Kong's 2019 protests - for TIME Magazine and covered local news at Coconuts Hong Kong.