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Frustration over COVID-19 restrictions in increasingly isolated Hong Kong

Frustration over COVID-19 restrictions in increasingly isolated Hong Kong

HONG KONG, Jan. 14 (Reuters) – Hong Kong is taking mainland China’s zero-tolerance approach to contain COVID-19, leaving many residents of the international financial center concerned as much of the world shifts to life with the coronavirus.

Hong Kong effectively closed its borders and imposed social restrictions this month to cope with a spurt in COVID-19 infections due to the spread of the Omicron variant.

While the moves are less severe than those in parts of the mainland, they come after months of relative normalcy, devastating a city that relies on business travelers and is used to eating out regularly.

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Frustration among the city’s 7.5 million residents is mounting as restrictions also threaten to dampen Chinese New Year’s celebrations at the end of the month, traditionally a time of shopping, parties and family reunions. The border with the mainland is closed, while shopkeepers and restaurant owners struggle during what is usually the busiest time of the year.

“With the obvious conclusion most countries have come to, that COVID-19 is not going away, the only sensible way to do this is to gradually relax the quarantine regime and manage this endemic virus in the same way as other viruses,” said Stuart Bailey , chairman of the Hong Kong Exhibition & Convention Industry Association, one of the world’s leading business sectors ravaged by the pandemic.

About 50 cases of the Omicron variant have been detected in the community since the first local transmission was recorded in late December, ending three months with no locally transmitted infections.

Authorities have rushed to contain further spread, with leader Carrie Lam vowing to persist with zero tolerance for infections while asking society to tolerate the cost.

“I fully understand the fear, discontent and anger of the public,” Lam said this week. “We can’t do anything because we have to fight this epidemic.”

The government re-imposed a series of restrictions on January 7, including a ban on gatherings of more than four people and dining out after 6:00 pm. Pubs, schools, gyms and cinemas have to close and air traffic has been significantly reduced.

In mainland China, a handful of cities have imposed lockdowns on millions of residents, preventing them from leaving their homes as authorities double down on double containment efforts as Beijing prepares to host the Winter Olympics.

LOGISTICS NIGHTMARE

Lam’s policy has long annoyed those unable to travel for business or family emergencies due to the costly 21-day hotel quarantine, flight bans and difficult paperwork.

The city’s position as one of the world’s busiest passenger hubs has been drastically curtailed by strict restrictions on airline personnel and the ban on passenger flights from countries such as the United States, Australia, France and Great Britain.

Hong Kong is lagging far behind other developed cities with its vaccination campaign. About 75% of eligible people have had a first dose, while about 70% have had a second. About 8% have received a third.

Nearly a million people have received mandatory testing notifications so far this year, thousands have been forced into overnight lockdowns and thousands more have been sent to government quarantine facilities.

The largest quarantine facility has been plagued by electricity and supply shortages, overwhelmed by huge numbers.

Worse is yet to come.

Amid stricter quarantine rules for flight crews, the Hong Kong Association of Freight Forwarding & Logistics said logistics costs will increase by 40% in the coming weeks, with premium food, fresh produce, pharmaceuticals and e-commerce goods being the hardest hit.

Lamb told lawmakers on Wednesday she expected some goods to be unavailable or their price to rise, with food, electronics and medicine being the hardest hit. read more

‘HELPLESS AND FRUSTRATED’

Bars, restaurants and caterers predict hundreds millions of dollars in losses in the coming weeks, while some gyms, beauty salons and cultural institutions fear for their survival.

“We feel very helpless and frustrated,” the Hong Kong Theater Association said in an email.

The frustration was compounded last week when senior government officials were found to have ignored calls to avoid large gatherings and attended a birthday party.

Lam ordered a “disciplinary inquiry,” although many residents — tired of two years of COVID-19 that came on top of dramatic political changes as Beijing tightened its grip on the city — questioned whether rules only applied to ordinary people.

A manager of Sun Kong restaurant, which serves dim sum in a working-class neighborhood, pointed to his largely empty hall and said it wasn’t his fault.

“Carrie Lam is the one who is not doing well,” said the manager, who only gave his last name Chan.

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Reporting by Farah Master; additional reporting by Marius Zaharia and Edmond Ng; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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