Hong Kong announces planned border re-opening with China as Omicron surges at Christmas
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By Josh Horwitz
SHANGHAI (Reuters) – China, which is grappling with a fresh wave of COVID-19 infections, took another step towards easing its pandemic-related restrictions on Saturday, as Hong Kong’s leader announced it would seek to open its borders with the mainland open again by mid-2020. January.
At a press conference after returning from Beijing, Hong Kong chief executive John Lee said authorities would aim to reopen all access points between the two sides “gradually, orderly and fully” and align with the government of nearby Shenzhen coordinate the flow of people.
Currently, people wishing to enter the mainland via Hong Kong can only do so through the city’s airport or two checkpoints – Shenzhen Bay or the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge.
Mainland travelers are also required to undergo hotel quarantine before free movement.
Hong Kong and Beijing closed their borders in early 2020 when COVID first emerged, and they have remained closed since China imposed a cap on inbound travelers as part of its strict “zero-COVID” policy.
Beijing eased China’s domestic zero-COVID restrictions earlier this month, dropping mandatory testing requirements and travel restrictions.
While many have welcomed the easing, families and the healthcare system have not been prepared for the resulting wave of infections. Hospitals are scrambling for beds and blood, pharmacies for drugs, and government agencies scrambling to build clinics.
Ahead of Christmas, Shanghai authorities urged residents to stay home this weekend to curb the spread of the virus. The holiday is not traditionally celebrated in China, but it is common for young couples and some families to spend the holiday together.
Despite these warnings, an annual Christmas market at the Bund, a commercial area, was packed with visitors.
“My friends are basically all positive and all have basically recovered,” said Liu Yang, 23, an IT worker who visits the market.
“We wanted to take advantage of Christmas, and it’s the weekend, we wanted to walk around and enjoy the air, so we came here.”
Still, the proliferation of Omicron is dampening celebrations for other retailers and restaurants.
Many restaurants in Shanghai have canceled Christmas parties, which are usually held for regulars, while hotels have limited reservations due to staff shortages, said Jacqueline Mocatta, who works in hospitality.
“There is only a certain number of clients that we can accept given our manpower, with the majority of team members being ill at the moment,” she said.
SKEPTICS AGAINST OFFICIAL DATA
Infections in China are likely to be more than a million a day, with deaths at more than 5,000 a day, UK-based health data company Airfinity said this week, describing the estimates as “a stark contrast” to official data.
China’s national health authority on Saturday reported 4,128 daily symptomatic COVID-19 infections and no deaths for the fourth straight day.
Bloomberg News reported on Friday that nearly 37 million people may have been infected with COVID in a single day over the past week, citing estimates by the government’s top health agency. Authorities did not comment on the report.
The emergency number in Taiyuan, in northern Shanxi province, received over 4,000 calls a day, a local media outlet said on Saturday.
Taiyuan authorities urged residents to call the number only for medical emergencies, saying guidance on COVID “falls outside the hotline’s scope.”
A health official in Qingdao said the port city was seeing about 500,000 infections a day, media reported on Friday. In the southern city of Dongguan, a key manufacturing hub, daily infections reach 250,000 to 300,000, local authorities told domestic media.
The surge has weighed on the medical sector, especially blood supplies, as a shortage of donors has dwindled reserves.
On Saturday, China’s National Health Commission said in a statement that people suffering from mild or common COVID-19 symptoms can safely donate blood a few days after their symptoms have subsided.
In Wuhan, the central city where COVID emerged three years ago, media reported Friday that the local blood depot had only 4,000 units, enough for two days. The repository called for people to “roll up their sleeves and donate blood.”
(Reporting by Josh Horwitz and Jing Bian in Shanghai; additional reporting by Xihao Jiang in Shanghai; editing by William Mallard and Philippa Fletcher)