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HONG KONG, March 21 (Reuters) – Hong Kong plans to ease some anti-COVID-19 measures next month, lifting bans on flights from nine countries, reducing quarantine time for arrivals from overseas and reopening schools.
The measures, announced by Chief Executive Carrie Lam on Monday, could assuage some criticism from residents who are growing frustrated with the city’s strict measures, some of which have been in place for more than two years.
The flight ban would be lifted from April 1, while the hotel quarantine for arrivals could be reduced to seven days from 14 if residents tested negative, Lam told a press briefing. She previously said measures would be in place until April 20.
Schools would resume face-to-face classes from April 19, after the Easter holidays, while public places, including sports facilities, would also reopen from April 21, she said.
Hong Kong’s border has effectively been closed since 2020 with very few flights able to land and virtually no passengers allowed through, isolating a city that had built a reputation as a global financial hub.
The ban had made it very difficult for residents to return to Chinese-ruled territory, with many spending time known as “washing” in other countries for two weeks before being allowed to return.
The rules, along with constant mixed messages from the government, including whether a citywide lockdown and mass testing would take place, have sparked an exodus of residents over the past two months.
Net outflows show more than 54,000 people have left Hong Kong so far in March, compared to more than 71,000 in February and nearly 17,000 in December before the fifth wave of the pandemic hit, raising fears for the city’s long-term competitiveness.
The city’s businesses and economy are reeling from widespread shutdowns, while doctors say many of the city’s 7.4 million residents are struggling with growing mental health issues, especially among low income families.
A plan to carry out mass coronavirus testing would be put on hold, Lam said, citing experts who said now was not the appropriate time.
While the former British colony has officially stuck to the “dynamic zero” coronavirus policy, similar to mainland China, which seeks to curb all outbreaks, it has turned to mitigation strategies as deaths were skyrocketing.
Hong Kong has recorded the most deaths per million people in the world in recent weeks – more than 24 times that of rival Singapore – due to a large proportion of unvaccinated elderly people while the highly transmissible variant of Omicron has been tearing care homes apart since February.
The densely populated city has recorded more than a million infections since the start of the pandemic and around 5,000 deaths – most in the past month.
Health experts estimate that up to 4 million people could be infected, as many residents contracted the virus and isolated themselves at home without notifying authorities.
(Reporting by Farah Master, Twinnie Siu, Jessie Pang, Anne Marie Roantree and Queenie Garcia; Editing by Christopher Cushing and Simon Cameron-Moore)
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