HK to relax social-distancing rules as it reveals travel bubble talks with countries such as Japan, Thailand, Germany

09-Sep-2020 Intellasia | South China Morning Post | 6:02 AM Print This Post

Hong Kong is to relax social-distancing rules for restaurants, public gatherings and sports venues from Friday, while ministers have pledged that other premises, including theme parks and exhibition venues, could reopen next week if the coronavirus crisis is kept under control.

Travel bubbles with 11 countries would also be possible if the situation improved, senior officials revealed, while calling on the public to join the citywide mass testing programme to increase overseas confidence in Hong Kong.

“The enhanced checking and active participation of the community [in mass testing] will give added comfort to our partners that Hong Kong is a safer place for such exchange,” commerce minister Edward Yau Tang-wah said.

“But I shouldn’t give members of the community a false illusion that [the travel bubbles] could be done within days. The situation remains fluid and could change depending on circumstances.”

The news came as Hong Kong recorded just six new Covid-19 cases on Tuesday.

Confirming an earlier Post report, officials said that from Friday, up to four people would be allowed per table in restaurants, as well as to meet in public.

A number of closed premises would be allowed to reopen, including museums, mahjong parlours, ice-skating rinks, as well as most indoor and outdoor sport facilities, but not swimming pools or beaches.

“Unless there is a great resurgence of cases, the government will continue to relax more social-distancing measures,” she said.

“The public should stay alert and not be complacent. The third wave has been going on for two months and is still continuing, as we still have silent carriers in the community.”

The new rules would remain in place for a week, and expire next Thursday, officials said.

The administration also gave advance notice on Tuesday to other premises that could be allowed to reopen next Friday. Party rooms, bath houses, karaoke clubs, nightclubs, swimming pools, theme parks and exhibition venues are among those being considered.

But it would only happen if the Covid-19 situation remains stable and stringent preventive measures are carried out in those premises, according to authorities.

“Under this new normal… we have adopted a phased approach… [that] should be in a gradual, step-by-step manner,” health minister Professor Sophia Chan Siu-chee said.

“Although the situation is stabilising, we still reckon there are silent chains of infection in the community, so we have adopted a more sophisticated and refined approach, [and] continue to assess the situation every seven days.”

It was also the first time in months that the administration updated details on the travel bubble plan with 11 countries: Japan, Thailand, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia, Vietnam, France, Switzerland, Germany and Singapore. So far, the government has only entered bilateral talks with Japan and Thailand.

These countries involve those [who have their pandemic] situation under better control, it also includes some places [where] there is strong mutual [travel] interest

Edward Yau, commerce minister

Edward Yau said: “These are places with which we have made initial contact, but whether travel bubbles can be established… would depend on a host of factors, including the epidemic situation and its containment in respective places.

“These countries involve those [who have their pandemic] situation under better control, it also includes some places [where] there is strong mutual [travel] interest.

“There will be no compromise on any sort of risk, if for instance, at the very last moment, even when things are ready, but if health authorities have reservations on lifting the ban, I think we would of course err on the safe side.”

While Yau said he would not identify any priority groups, some countries did mention that focus could be given to business travellers. No timetable could be provided as yet, he added.

“Of course the timetable will be a matter of bilateral agreement between Hong Kong and partnering countries. It all depends on how ready and comfortable both parties are with the situation,” Yau said.

“It is also a matter of whether we can agree on the protocol including a pre-boarding test which must be mutually recognised by the respective health authorities, a double insurance by having, upon arrival, port health checking, plus any additional measures. These are the issues we need to discuss.”

Tuesday’s figure was Hong Kong’s lowest number of daily infections in more than two months, since five cases were recorded on July 3. The city’s Covid-19 case tally stands at 4,895.

Meanwhile, the death of a 90-year-old man, a resident at the Salvation Army Lung Hang Residence for Senior Citizens in Tai Wai, took the city’s total number of coronavirus-related deaths to 99.

Speaking on a radio programme, Secretary for the Civil Service Patrick Nip Tak-kuen, who is coordinating the mass screening scheme, said the tests had proved effective in cutting off some hidden paths of contagion, with 16 cases discovered so far via the programme.

“In the past, some of the transmission chains could only be found after patients showed symptoms, but now we can find them earlier,” he said. “Among the 16 cases, there were couples, workers, a housewife, all from different sectors or districts, which could have been hidden chains if we had not spotted them.”

Speaking before her weekly Executive Council meeting, Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor said 16 cases was a small figure. “The proportion is very, very low, but it lets us see the infectivity in Hong Kong under the epidemic.”

Nip said that at around 0.03 to 0.04 per cent the programme’s current positive rate was within the range expected. The government would continue to monitor the number of people registering for tests on Tuesday to determine whether the scheme should be extended again.

On Tuesday, the tally of residents signing up reached more than 1.21 million. More than 1.19 million have taken the test, with 1,554 people doing so twice a relatively small figure, according to Nip.

A turnout rate of 92 per cent was recorded after 960,000 of those booking appointments online actually attended them, Lam said.

“We had already extended the programme from Monday to Thursday,” Nip said. “We will evaluate the situation after [Tuesday] and decide whether some of the centres should stay open until Sunday.”


Category: Hong Kong

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