Hong Kong relaxes virus quarantines for big company executives

Hong Kong’s government has relaxed coronavirus quarantine measures for executives at companies including Tencent and Alibaba, as part of efforts to revive business activity while cutting the risk of further outbreaks.

Authorities in the semi-autonomous territory said on Monday that senior employees at the largest listed companies on its stock exchange could apply for exemptions from mandatory quarantines when travelling between Hong Kong and mainland China.

Hong Kong imposed travel restrictions and quarantines on all mainland Chinese arrivals in February, shortly after Covid-19 emerged in Wuhan. But the city’s economy, already on its knees following months of anti-government protests, has been hit hard by the measures.

“We strive to balance the need of safeguarding public health and promoting Hong Kong’s economic development,” said Christopher Hui, Hong Kong’s Secretary for Financial Services and the Treasury. The decision will allow “sizeable Hong Kong-listed companies to perform business activities that are essential to their operation”.

The announcement applies to the top 95 per cent of Hong Kong’s publicly traded companies by market capitalisation. Each eligible company can nominate two directors or executives each month who can travel over the border between mainland China and Hong Kong without being quarantined.

But some observers questioned the logic of only easing restrictions for executives at listed companies. Fraser Howie, an independent analyst and co-author of Red Capitalism: The Fragile Financial Foundation of China’s Extraordinary Rise, said they were based on “odd criteria” but pointed out that Hong Kong’s financial markets have been “almost solely dependent on the mainland” for two decades.

Hong Kong is one of the world’s biggest equity markets and is home to both listed local conglomerates and mainland Chinese blue-chips.

“If you’re managing a series of factories or you’re depending on China for your supply chain, [easing quarantines] may be more relevant,” Mr Howie said. “By tying it to listed companies, it’s not at all clear to me that those are the most in need.” 

Under current rules, all international arrivals into Hong Kong — including those from mainland China — must undergo a mandatory 14-day quarantine.

New coronavirus cases in Hong Kong have slowed to a trickle since mid-April. There have been just 1,107 Covid-19 infections in the city of more than 7m, with four deaths.

The city’s relative success in dealing with the pandemic has come as Hong Kong has been hit by a fresh bout of political turmoil following Beijing’s announcement that it would impose a national security law on the former British colony.

China’s rate of new infections has also slowed markedly even as the coronavirus continues to spread globally. The country has in recent weeks allowed more foreign airlines to resume international flights into its cities.

It has also formed an agreement to resume essential business and official travel with Singapore, which requires travellers to test for coronavirus.