Hong Kong’s Secretary for Health Lo Chung-mau has said that the city cannot “lie flat” when it comes to Covid-19, using a term that originated in mainland China to mean doing as little as possible. Axing hotel quarantine for travellers was the best option to balance pandemic control and the resumption of economic activities, Lo added.

The government last Friday announced that mandatory hotel quarantine for international arrivals would be axed from Monday, replaced with three days of “medical surveillance” at home or at a hotel, during which inbound travellers would be allowed to go out and about, albeit subject to PCR requirements and restricted from certain types of premises.

Hong Kong International Airport Covid-19 arrival travel
Inbound travellers in the Hong Kong International Airport. Photo: GovHK.

Speaking on a TV programme on Sunday, Lo said the change was the best balance between epidemic control and resuming economic activities for the moment, adding it was “not suitable” to jump to the so-called “0+0” arrangement, which would mean scrapping all quarantine restrictions.

Lo Chung-mau
Secretary for Health Lo Chung-mau. Photo: Almond Li/HKFP.

“We pay more attention to overseas travellers because there are more virus variants abroad. If people remember, the strands of BA. 2 to BA. 4 or BA. 5 came from overseas. There are now some emerging variants such as BA. 2.75. We still need to be concerned about those at this moment,” Lo said.

But he said the risk of imported cases was manageable because all incoming travellers had to be tested thoroughly.

‘Many of our elderly died’

Lo was asked by the programme host whether the recent relaxation of measures went against a remark he made in May, when he said “we will all die together” if Hong Kong were to move towards living with the virus.

Two elderly patients were seen outside the Caritas Medical Centre in Shum Shui Po on February 16, 2022.
Two elderly patients were seen outside the Caritas Medical Centre in Shum Shui Po on February 16, 2022. Photo: Kenny Huang/Studio Incendo.

“Many things have changed. Our vaccination rate increased greatly, our hospital system’s ability to handle the pandemic has also strengthened,” Lo replied. “Indeed many of our elderly died – you could ask those 9,000-odd [deaths] – where have they gone?”

He did not answer directly whether the government’s move contradicted his earlier words but stressed that Hong Kong cannot “lie flat” on epidemic control.

No lying flat

Executive Council member and former health secretary Ko Wing-man has also said easing quarantine policy did not equate to lying flat, when speaking to the press after attending a medical seminar on Sunday.

ko wing man
Ko Wing-man meeting the press on September 25, 2022. Photo: Screenshot, via RTHK.

“Unfortunately Hong Kong entered the fifth wave and we had a lot of patients, so to attain zero-Covid is basically impossible in the near future,” Ko said. He said under such situation, the government can only adopt a more balanced measure – referring to cutting hotel quarantine and requiring only medical surveillance.

“I think this also responded to huge demands in the society to resume economic activities, so I think it is appropriate. It also does not mean the government has opted to lie flat.”

Ko added Hong Kong “has never opted to live with the virus.” He said many other countries which have taken the approach “paid a hefty price” and showed Hong Kong “a very bad example.”

As of Saturday, Hong Kong had recorded 1.74 million Covid-19 infections and more than 10,000 related deaths since the pandemic began in early 2020.

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Almond Li is a Hong Kong-based journalist who previously worked for Reuters and Happs TV as a freelancer, and as a reporter at Hong Kong International Business Channel, Citizen News and Commercial Radio Hong Kong. She earned her Masters in Journalism at the University of Southern California. She has an interest in LGBT+, mental health and environmental issues.