Hong Kong bans flights, shuts down nightlife after Omicron bursts pandemic-free bubble

HONG KONG — Hong Kong bans passenger flights from eight countries, including the United States, for two weeks, closes bars and banishes dinners after the city’s first community-wide Omicron infection punctured one of the world’s strictest and most effective border controls.

CEO Carrie Lam revealed some of the toughest restrictions since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic in response to several instances of the Omicron variant linked to recurring flight crews, a switch designed to try to prevent a major outbreak. City health officials have only discovered one Omicron case that so far was not related to imported cases, but found triggered fears of invisible transmission chains in the community.

“We are facing a very serious situation, that is why we have to take very decisive action,” Mrs Lam said on Wednesday. “Our strategy is to be fast, tough and precise – we hope the short-term pain will pay off.”

While countries such as the United States and the United Kingdom have reported record-breaking daily incidents with minimal restrictions on travel and social mix, Hong Kong has been pursuing a “Zero Covid” strategy for several months. Travelers returning from most countries have had to quarantine special centers or hotels for 21 days at their own expense.

While the strategy has helped local businesses and venues stay packed for most of the past year, controls have angered some foreign businesses whose staff are unable to travel freely in and out of the city.

“We are facing a very serious situation, that is why we have to take very crucial measures,” Hong Kong CEO Carrie Lam said on Wednesday.


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Despite border controls, the flight crew had less burdensome restrictions, and the latest outbreak started after some crew members violated home quarantine rules to go out to eat, shop and drink.

On Tuesday, a man who had no visible connections to the flight crew clusters was confirmed infected. Some scientific advisers to the government called for a return to more social restrictions that had effectively shut down the city’s nightlife earlier in the pandemic.

Dining at restaurants after kl. 18 is now banned and museums, gyms and swimming pools were ordered to close for two weeks.

The city will ban passenger flights from Australia, Canada, France, India, Pakistan, the Philippines, the UK and the US for 14 days from midnight on Friday. People who had resided in these countries are not allowed to board flights to Hong Kong.

Researchers use automation, real-time analysis and pooling of data from around the world to quickly identify and understand new coronavirus variants before the next one spreads widely. Photo illustration: Sharon Shi

“We did not want to do it step by step and prolong the pain,” Ms Lam said, asking for understanding from companies. “We are very tough, but hope to resume border negotiations and have businesses open before the Chinese New Year,” she said, referring to talks with mainland China on quarantine-free travel.

Mrs Lam said city officials would not be required to work from home as they had earlier in the pandemic. However, she urged private employers to allow people to work remotely. Hong Kong has never had city-wide mandates to work from home during the entire pandemic.

The lunar New Year holiday, where many families gather for festivities, begins in Hong Kong on February 1st.

Hong Kong has registered about 12,600 Covid-19 cases and 213 deaths since the pandemic began.

Write to Natasha Khan at natasha.khan@wsj.com

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