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Hong Kong exempts finance executives from tough coronavirus quarantine rules

Hong Kong has exempted senior financial executives and directors of some listed companies from its harsh border quarantine rules, prompting calls by business groups to widen the measures to other sectors.

Banks, insurers and asset managers licensed by Hong Kong’s financial regulators can each apply for two senior employees to visit and two to return to the city per month without having to quarantine if they are vaccinated and travelling “for business purposes”.

Directors of large companies in the main indices of the Hong Kong stock exchange can also apply for the quarantine exemption if their travel plans are “essential to the operation” of the business. The new rules, some of which were posted on the Hong Kong government website on Friday, are effective immediately.

The decision followed concerns that Hong Kong was opening up more slowly than other business hubs due to the strict quarantine policy and vaccination rates far lower than London, New York and Singapore. The financial services sector accounts for more than 21 per cent of the territory’s gross domestic product.

Tara Joseph, president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong, said: “It’s a welcome development and one we think should be extended across sectors.”

But several banks cautioned that they were still seeking clarification on details of the application process, including what defines a “senior executive”, and looking into how they would protect staff from returning travellers who do not quarantine.

“Hong Kong has been isolated from the rest of the financial world and now we are not,” said an executive at one Wall Street bank.

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An executive at a second US bank said the exemption looked like “special treatment for the 1 per cent”, but that it would allow Hong Kong to maintain its status as an international financial centre.

But Frederik Gollob, chair of the European Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong, said the government needed to “go significantly beyond” this step as it appeared the city’s quarantine requirements were contributing to an outflow of talent.

“There’s an increasing frustration over this de facto lockdown,” Gollob said, adding that businesses wanted a broader relaxation of restrictions for vaccinated travellers. “The government has not connected the vaccination campaign to a clear reopening strategy.”

HSBC said the exemption for bankers would “stimulate more economic activity across a wide range of sectors. Safeguarding public health and allowing business travel to gradually get back to normal can coexist.”

Travellers from eight “high-risk” countries including the UK, India and Brazil — and almost all unvaccinated travellers — have to quarantine in a hotel for 21 days on arrival in Hong Kong. Vaccinated arrivals from elsewhere are subject to a 14-day hotel quarantine, except those from Australia and New Zealand, who must quarantine for seven days.

Global banks in Hong Kong have had discussions with Asifma, the capital markets industry body in Asia, about whether to lobby the government for exemptions to the travel quarantine rules since late last year. Some expressed fears that the rules could damage the territory’s position as a global financial centre.

Concerns have increased as vaccination rates have remained low in the city. Just 15 per cent of Hong Kong’s population is fully vaccinated, compared with 28 per cent in Singapore, 27 per cent in London and 43 per cent in New York City.

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