Property tycoon Ronnie Chan urges Hong Kong government to rethink tough Covid-19 stance

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Property tycoon Ronnie Chan has urged the government to rethink Hong Kong’s tough stance on Covid-19 as the highly infectious Omicron variant appears to produce milder symptoms than its counterparts.

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The billionaire chairman of Hang Lung Properties said the city’s measures, which include strict social distancing rules and a lengthy quarantine period, make life extremely difficult for businesses.

He compared the severity of the Omicron strain of the coronavirus to influenza.

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“It seems Omicron is going in the direction of becoming flu-like. It is possible to consider how the policy needs to progress. There may be a need to study the possibility of a change,” he said at a briefing on Thursday.

Chan said the current zero-covid policy would make sense if the virus caused a high percentage of deaths. He said an approach based on building herd immunity would be “fine” if the current wave of infections does prove similar to influenza.

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Within a few hours of Chan making his comments on Thursday, his prayers were partially answered. Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor announced that the 21-day quarantine requirement for incoming travellers is to be shortened to two weeks from February 5, given the much shorter incubation period of the Omicron strain.

The move came after persistent complaints from travellers, and companies paying high quarantine costs for employees.

The government’s zero-Covid rules had begun to grind on many expatriate staff after two years, the Hong Kong Association of Banks (HKAB) said last week.

Hang Lung is the first Hong Kong developer to openly call for a change of Covid-19 policy.

Chan said the city is “in a difficult situation”. It is “stuck in the middle”, between the need for people to cross the border with mainland China freely and the desire to align with other countries.

“Of course, Hong Kong is a big international city. So we need to align with the world,” said Chan. “The fact that the staff of big companies [have not been] able to return to Hong Kong without [undergoing a quarantine of] three weeks, is extremely difficult to accept in terms of commercial sense.”

His own son Adriel Chan, Hang Lung’s vice-chairman, had needed to undergo a three-week quarantine in mainland China, the elder Chan said.

Chan said that while the “dynamic” zero-tolerance Covid-19 policy adopted by Beijing may work in mainland China, it could be difficult to implement in Hong Kong and other places if a lot of people do not get vaccines.

“It has ended up that the border between Hong Kong and the mainland still cannot reopen,” he said.

Chan was speaking at an event to announce the company’s 2021 financial results.

Hang Lung’s underlying profit attributable to shareholders increased by 4 per cent to HK$4.37 billion (US$560 million) for the year ended December 31

The board recommended a final dividend of 60 HK cents per share, compared to 59 HK cents in 2020.

In January, the pandemic had a big impact on Hong Kong’s retail market, especially the catering industry, with a ban on dine-in services at night, said the company’s chief executive officer Weber Lo.

“If the social distancing measures sustain, it will definitely have a big impact on us at the beginning of this year,” said Lo.

The return of rental growth in tourist districts like Mong Kok and Causeway Bay remains uncertain since the border has not reopened and the fifth wave of the outbreak remains, Lo added.

Meanwhile, the completion of Hang Lung’s Shouson Hill project, which it bought from the US government, will be postponed from the end of 2024 to 2025, because of a previous delay of several months and the pandemic, said Lo.

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