Tuesday, 15 Jun 2021

Coronavirus: Hong Kong eases quarantine for vaccinated top staff, drawing ire

HONG KONG (BLOOMBERG) – Hong Kong is allowing vaccinated directors and senior executives of major listed companies to travel globally more easily, in a significant relaxation of its onerous border curbs that is drawing backlash from the wider population for being elitist.

Vaccinated senior executives from about 500 companies included in indexes like the Hang Seng and Hang Seng China Enterprises can seek permission to travel in and out of the city without needing to follow the current quarantine requirement, Hong Kong’s Financial Services and the Treasury Bureau said in an e-mailed statement on Monday (May 31).

The current norm is that everyone arriving in Hong Kong must isolate in a hotel for up to 21 days.

This exemption is available to other firms from financial industries like banking, mobile payments, insurance, securities and futures intermediaries.

Companies are allowed a limited quota of exemptions and the government will review applications based on criteria like where the executive is travelling from, said the statement.

The executives must undergo testing and are required to stick to pre-approved itineraries on their business trips and not move freely around the city.

An earlier version of the quarantine exemption policy has existed since last year for executives coming from mainland China.

“It is necessary to assist these institutions to maintain effective operations during the epidemic to ensure Hong Kong’s financial stability and maintain Hong Kong’s status as an international financial centre,” the bureau’s spokesman said in the e-mail.

The clarification of a wider policy of exemption for vaccinated executives comes in the wake of a Friday announcement that some vaccinated senior bankers can skip quarantine, and is likely to deepen public ire over the special treatment.

Hong Kong’s traveller quarantine requirements are some of the strictest in the world and require people to pay for hotel room stays, the supply of which is rapidly drying up during the summer months, leaving some with no option to return.

Despite being one of a few places in the world to make vaccines available to all adults, Hong Kong has struggled to get people to come forward for inoculation amid widespread distrust of the Beijing-backed government.

Just 13.4 per cent of Hong Kong’s population of 7.5 million has been fully inoculated, according to Bloomberg’s Covid-19 Vaccine Tracker – far behind other finance centres like London and Singapore.

Experts say relaxing quarantine for all vaccinated people would act as an incentive to raise uptake, but the Hong Kong government has so far rejected doing so, instead leaning on businesses and institutions to encourage injections.

Banks in the former British colony welcomed the plan, but frustration erupted across social media platforms, especially among citizens trying to find a way home.

“We welcome the new measure providing more convenience to vaccinated senior executives when travelling to Hong Kong. This helps encourage resumption of necessary business travel and brings business activities gradually back to normal, which is particularly important to Hong Kong as an international financial centre,” said a Standard Chartered spokesman in an e-mailed statement.

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The bank will look at how the policy would facilitate senior executives based elsewhere to meet clients and colleagues locally, she said, adding that Hong Kong is the bank’s largest market.

Ally, a Hong Kong citizen who currently lives in Canada, said she’s extremely upset that “as long as you are rich and powerful” you can skip the requirements that most people must observe. Ally, who asked that only her English name be used, said she has been unable to return to Hong Kong after her father died last year.

A single mother, she can’t afford the cost of a 21-day quarantine, which would require her to be away from work without pay.

“You can imagine how infuriating it is that someone else is exempt because of money and I have lost my only remaining parent,” she said.

The issue isn’t just the time and cost of quarantine.

As the length of hotel isolation for those travelling from some countries, including the US, has dropped to two weeks for vaccinated people, demand for rooms has skyrocketed.

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Numerous accommodations, especially those at lower price points, are fully booked through the end of the current quarantine period, which runs until June 19.

The Food and Health Bureau said Monday in an emailed statement that the supply of rooms would be increased from the current 8,300 to 10,000 due to more demand. Some hotels will open up more rooms for booking, it said.

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