8th July 2022 – (Hong Kong) The government said yesterday (7th) that after preliminary review of data and scientific analysis, the “flight suspension mechanism” of individual flight routes will be shelved with immediate effect, and those arriving in Hong Kong will need to undergo an extra nucleic acid test on the 3rd day. The government believes that the social cost caused by the “flight suspension mechanism” was quite large, and more frequent nucleic acid testing for arrivals will be more effective in disrupting imported COVID-19 cases. Therefore, this decision was made.
However, the number of new cases in Hong Kong reached 3,028 yesterday, and the society will inevitably link the two issues, believing that the government intends to relax the measure to curb imported cases. Most of the politicians agreed with this approach as it would reduce the hassle for arrivals in Hong Kong, and at the same time suggested the government to give more explanations to clear up public misunderstandings. As to whether the government should reduce the number of days spent in designated quarantine hotels, the opinions are still divided.
Ronny Tong, non-official member of the Executive Council said that the purpose of the flight suspension mechanism is to force airlines to deal with the anti-epidemic requirements seriously, but it is often innocent passengers who will suffer. Not only will the itinerary be completely out of control, but even designated hotel deposits may be forfeited, which is really unfair. The new government has made a drastic move to impress citizens. He hopes that there will be an early breakthrough in border reopening. He also added that the previous government had already reviewed the effectiveness and impact of the flight suspension mechanism long before the new government was elected, but believed that it was not suitable to make too significant changes to policies on the eve of the election, so as not to cause a deadlock to the next government. The same is true for the civil servants’ salary increase issue, which is considered a responsible approach.
Meanwhile, Rebecca Chan Hoi-yan, member of the Legislative Council and political assistant to Secretary for Food and Health Ko Wing-man from 2012 to 2017 said that this time, the government suspended the flight suspension mechanism simultaneously with the implementation of nucleic acid testing on the third day of arrival in Hong Kong. Chan said that since the summer vacation is approaching, many international students will take flight back to Hong Kong. They have booked air tickets and designated quarantine hotels. If the flight suspension mechanism was invoked, students would have to rebook air tickets and hotels, which would also disrupt their itinerary. The removal of flight suspension mechanism would not only facilitate returning students and businessmen to come to Hong Kong, but also help reviving the tourism industry. Even if the cost of testing increases, it is still acceptable.
The cancellation of flight suspension mechanism definitely brought some good news to the travel industry. The flight suspension mechanism became even more ‘outdated’ after the government lifted the ban on flights from 9 countries on 1st April. At that time, once an individual flight had 3 passengers diagnosed with COVID-19, the route would be suspended for 7 days. In the first 20 days, the mechanism was triggered 25 times, causing foreign airlines are reluctant to resume flights to Hong Kong. Legislative Councillor, Perry Yiu Pak-leung and tourism sector lawmaker who has been calling for the suspension of the mechanism, said that since then, complaints from the relevant industry and the public have been incessant. In May, the government raised the trigger threshold to 5 passengers or 5% of all passengers diagnosed on single flight, whichever is higher, but Yiu believes that “there were many unreasonable and unfair rules in the mechanism itself as the threshold was too low.”
He said that the new government took office for just a few days and it had already removed flight suspension mechanism. Yiu commended the new team for its rapid response in listening to opinions to make adjustments. As for border reopening with mainland, Yiu believes that the whole society wants border reopening with the mainland without quarantine as soon as possible, but the mainland has concerns and needs for prevention and control, and Hong Kong also needs to weigh on its own conditions.
According to the epidemic prevention recovery roadmap, the next step to adjust is the period for quarantine hotel and home quarantine. Yiu said that the Chief Executive has expressed his agreement with this direction at the Legislative Council Q&A session. He hoped that the government would consider the “334” plan that he had proposed as early as May, that is, those who have received all three vaccination shots are only required to be quarantined in hotels for 3 days, and the remaining 4 days in home quarantine.
The vacated quarantine hotel rooms can be converted to designated quarantine station for travellers bound for the mainland to prevent imported cases from entering the mainland. He said that the anti-epidemic strategy must balance normal life, the principle is not to create pressure on the medical system, and at the same time to keep serious cases at a low level.
Legislative Councillor Doreen Kong Yuk-foon believes that the summer time is now the peak period for international students to return to Hong Kong and the shortage in supply of designated hotel rooms must be addressed. Otherwise, tourists, students, and business travellers will be affected.
As to whether quarantine period in hotels should be shortened, there are different opinions among Legislative Council members. By adding a nucleic acid test on third day after arrival can reduce the risk of transmission in quarantine hotels. The most important thing is to prevent arrivals from isolating at home earlier to prevent the virus from flowing into the community. Rebecca Chan is concerned that if there is another new variant of the virus that appears, any onset of the illness after 7-day hotel quarantine is over will bring risks to the community. Therefore, she believes that persons arriving in Hong Kong should also have tracking measures, and the government can make good use of new technologies such as using electronic wristband to track arrivals within a certain period of time.
Many politicians estimated that the government’s latest move to shelve the “flight suspension mechanism” this time is a temporary measure and it is a practice that can be restarted immediately if the epidemic becomes serious again.