Omicron will challenge Hong Kong’s COVID-free policy: former US diplomat

A former US diplomat told CNBC that a highly transmissible omicron variant would be a “very tough challenge” for Hong Kong as the city sticks to a zero-Covid policy.

Kurt Tong, who was the US consul general and chief of mission in Hong Kong and Macau from August 2016 to July 2019, said there is likely to be more opposition to “drastic measures” given that the alternative appears less risky.

Tougher restrictions – including closing bars, cinemas and fitness centers – were imposed on Friday last week and are set to run until January 20.

“We are facing a very dire situation of a major outbreak in the community at any time, which is why we have to take very decisive action,” Chief Executive Carrie Lam said when announcing the new rules.

Zero Covid would be very difficult to achieve given the transmissibility of the omicron variant, and “there will be more political pressure not to take drastic measures against a relatively small risk for most of the vaccinated population,” said Tong, now a partner at business consultancy The Asia Group. .

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam talks about the vaccination service to the media before a meeting on January 11, 2022 in Hong Kong.

China News Service | China News Service | Getty Images

About 70% of Hong Kong residents have received two doses of the Covid vaccine, according to government data. However, Tong told CNBC’s “Squawk Box Asia” on Thursday that a “significant percentage” of seniors are not immune.

He added that the government was “fully committed” to not having Covid, and “cannot really undo this approach, regardless of the economic impact, without some instruction from Beijing to do so – which I don’t expect to happen.”

Not happy but quit

Asked about public and business sentiments about the Covid eradication strategy, Tong said that “unhappiness is the primary feeling – but also the feeling of giving up.”

Tung said people understand that Hong Kong wants to reopen the border with China, and that it needs to follow the same zero-Covid policy in order to make that happen.

“This is the way it will be,” he said.

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Tong added that he does not expect to open the border with China in the first half of this year.

“The Omicron challenge is very important, and so everyone will be quite conservative in their decision,” he said.

Alan Ziemann, chairman of Lan Kwai Fong Real Estate Development Group, has defended Hong Kong’s strict rules.

“I generally think we’re safe and that’s different from the horror stories I’m seeing in Europe and the United States at the moment,” he said in December. Zeman was a candidate in the Legislative Council elections last year but was unsuccessful in winning a seat.

Hong Kong has reported 12,821 confirmed cases of Covid and 213 deaths since the pandemic began.

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Andrew Naughtie

News reporter and author at @websalespromo