Hong Kong plans to relax some anti-Covid-19 measures next month, lifting a ban on flights from nine countries, reducing quarantine time for arrivals from abroad and reopening schools.
The moves, announced on Monday by Chief Executive Carrie Lam, could quieten some criticism from residents who have become increasingly frustrated with the city's stringent measures, some of which have been in place for over two years.
The flight ban would be lifted from April 1, while hotel quarantine for arrivals could be cut to seven days from 14 if residents tested negative, Lam told a news briefing. She had previously said measures would be in place until April 20.
Schools would resume face to face classes from April 19, after the Easter holidays while public venues including sports facilities would also reopen from April 21, she said.
Hong Kong's border has effectively been shut since 2020 with very few flights able to land and hardly any passengers alowed to transit, effectively isolating a city that had built a reputation as a global financial hub.
The ban had made it very difficult for residents to return to the Chinese ruled territory, with many spending time known as "washing out" in other countries for two weeks before being allowed to return.
The rules, together with constant mixed messaging from the government including whether a citywide lockdown and mass testing would take place, have triggered an exodus of residents in the past two months.
Net outflows show more than 54,000 people have left Hong Kong so far in March, against more than 71,000 in February and nearly 17,000 in December before the fifth wave of the pandemic hit, prompting fears for the city's longer-term competitiveness.
Businesses and the city's economy are reeling from widespread closures, while doctors say many of the city's 7.4 million residents are grappling with rising mental health issues, particularly among low income families.
A plan to carry out mass coronavirus testing would be put on hold, Lam said, citing experts who said it was not a suitable time.
While the former British colony has officially stuck to the "dynamic zero" coronavirus policy, similar to mainland China, which seeks to curb all outbreaks, it has been shifting to mitigation strategies as deaths skyrocketed.
Hong Kong has registered the most deaths per million people globally in recent weeks – more than 24 times that of rival Singapore - due to a large proportion of elderly who were unvaccinated as the highly transmissible Omicron variant ripped through care homes since February.
The densely packed city has recorded more than 1 million infections since the pandemic started and about 5,000 deaths - most of them in the past month.
As many as 4 million people could be infected according to estimates from health experts as many residents have contracted the virus and isolated at home without notifying authorities.