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Hong Kong’s Lam mulls easing Covid rules as public tolerance ‘fading’

Hong Kong's leader said Thursday she was mulling easing some of the city's coronavirus restrictions due to waning public tolerance, but could not provide a roadmap out of the current Omicron-fuelled crisis.

A worker puts up a fence to block access to Shek O beach in Hong Kong on March 17, 2022, after the government said it would close public beaches to curb the spread of the Covid-19 coronavirus. (Photo by DALE DE LA REY / AFP)

Hong Kong’s leader said Thursday she was mulling easing some of the city’s coronavirus restrictions due to waning public tolerance, but could not provide a roadmap out of the current Omicron-fuelled crisis.

Carrie Lam’s administration has been pummelled by all sides over its unclear public messaging and handling of Hong Kong’s fifth wave, which has brought nearly a million cases and 4,600 deaths in less than three months.

The jump in case numbers comes despite the finance hub putting in place border restrictions since the pandemic’s start and deploying some of the harshest social-distancing measures outside mainland China.

Since Omicron broke through in January, there have been bans on public gatherings of more than two, restrictions on night-time dining and mandatory masking while doing outdoor activities.

The latest new restrictions came Thursday, when public beaches were closed.

But Lam told a press conference that “the time has come” to review the restrictions.

“Not because the number of cases has come down… but I have a very strong feeling that people’s tolerance are fading,” she said.

“Some of our financial institutions are losing patience about this sort of isolated status of Hong Kong,” she added, promising an update would come “around March 20 or 21”.

When pressed on a roadmap for a way out of the crisis, she declined to give specifics.

“The most difficult part of fighting the virus is that we cannot fully predict what’s going to happen.”

Despite two hard-won years of breathing room due to Hong Kong’s adherence to the mainland’s zero-Covid strategy, the city is currently seeing scenes reminiscent of the pandemic’s start, with mounting elderly deaths and overcrowded hospitals.

Authorities initially announced plans for mass testing of the city’s 7.4 million people accompanied by a lockdown, before rolling them back.

The panic fuelled by mixed messaging and further restrictions prompted a record-high exodus of 65,400 local and foreign residents from the finance hub in February.

International banks such as JPMorgan and Bank of America have been working on relocation plans in view of flight bans and potential lockdown, according to a Financial Times report last week.

And Lam’s near-daily press conferences about Covid have done little to stop rumours about mass testing and lockdown plans.

‘Very grateful’
Researchers estimate Hong Kong’s infection toll is significantly higher than official figures, likely already reaching half its population.

China has offered to aid Hong Kong in its Covid battle, including providing about 400 medics who arrived this week to support the city’s health workers.

But members of the health sector, lawmakers and reporters have repeatedly raised questions about the visiting medics’ legal liabilities.

On Wednesday a reporter from local NowTV channel asked Lam how patients’ complaints over the medics will be handled — drawing wrath from a pro-Beijing group that started a petition calling for the journalist’s firing.

Newspaper Ta Kung Pao — affiliated with Beijing’s liaison office — also published an article alleging questions of liability were “seditious” and could run afoul of China’s national security law.

By Thursday afternoon, NowTV news channel issued an apology for the reporter’s question at the press conference.

“We are very grateful for the selfless support from the central government and mainland China,” it said.

Hong Kong authorities have said the city will shoulder ultimate responsibility.

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