Hong Kong bans all flights from U.S. and seven other countries as omicron spreads - The Washington Post

The restrictions also underscore how Hong Kong is hardening on its pandemic policy of eradicating the virus in the community at all costs, with the aim of zero new infections, even if it is leaving the international financial hub increasingly isolated and eroding its global competitiveness.

Hong Kong imposed a two-week ban on incoming flights from eight countries, including the United States and Britain, as omicron spreads. (Reuters)

In announcing the new measures, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam described them as more "decisive and comprehensive" than any other restrictions the city has seen over the past two years. Passenger flights from the eight countries — the United States, Britain, Australia, Canada, France, India, Pakistan and the Philippines — had to be suspended, Lam said, because of a "drastic" increase in imported coronavirus cases.

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"We are on the verge of another outbreak," she said.

Those routes are the most heavily trafficked into and out of Hong Kong, and include most of the cities where residents are returning from. The suspension will take effect Saturday and last for two weeks before it is reviewed. The flight bans are the most widespread restrictions on travel into Hong Kong since the pandemic began, although authorities periodically ban certain airline routes if they are found to be carrying several travelers infected with the coronavirus.

Hong Kong is also returning to some of the strictest social distancing measures, including a ban on dining in restaurants after 6 p.m. and the closure of facilities such as gyms and beauty parlors. Life in the city had largely been normal in recent months, with bars, clubs, schools and other places open and packed, as authorities congratulated themselves for bringing community cases down to zero. Lam was also readying to reopen the border with mainland China, a priority for Hong Kong.

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For the time being, schools remain open.

The city discovered its first community transmission of the omicron variant on New Year's Eve, after an infected flight attendant broke home isolation rules and dined out at a restaurant. That infection chain has quickly grown into a cluster, with the latest close contacts brought back onshore from a "cruise to nowhere" that was sailing in Hong Kong waters and ordered into a government isolation facility.

In a news conference Wednesday announcing the new restrictions, officials said that infected travelers returning from destinations abroad are vaccinated and therefore stable and not putting undue strain on the hospital system. Hong Kong has mandatory hospitalization for positive coronavirus cases, even those who are asymptomatic.

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But if the virus spreads more broadly in the community — with vaccination rates still lagging — the city will be in a "risky" position, said Tony Ko, chief executive of Hong Kong's Hospital Authority.

The new infections have prompted a rush to vaccination centers across the island, many of which are booked up for the next weeks. Both the Pfizer-BioNTech and Sinovac vaccines have been available for almost a year.

Hong Kong has not articulated a plan for reopening or loosening border restrictions, mirroring the zero-covid policy on the mainland rather than shifting to the strategy of living with the virus being adopted elsewhere in the world. Lam, speaking Wednesday, said she could not commit to any easing of restrictions even if the vaccination rate hits a certain percent of the population.

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