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‘Zero-Covid’ strategy won’t work, says top epidemiologist leaving Hong Kong

HONG KONG — Hong Kong needs to persuade mainland China to let it move forward by changing its zero-Covid strategy to living with the virus, according to Professor Keiji Fukuda, a leading epidemiologist and outgoing head of the city’s top public health school.

‘Zero-Covid’ strategy won’t work, says top epidemiologist leaving Hong Kong

Hong Kong has stayed firm with its zero-Covid approach and has tightened restrictions on travel from more than 20 countries considered high risk amid Omicron's emergence.

HONG KONG — Hong Kong needs to persuade mainland China to let it move forward by changing its zero-Covid strategy to living with the virus, according to Professor Keiji Fukuda, a leading epidemiologist and outgoing head of the city’s top public health school.

He said the zero-Covid approach, with strict travel restrictions, quarantine rules and other measures to prevent the coronavirus from entering the city and spreading, was only a “limited-term strategy”.

“Living with the virus is where we will all have to be at some point. We cannot close borders, we cannot close travel for the long term,” he told the Post in an interview.

“The consequence of having few cases is also that Hong Kong is relatively isolated, and there are so many people unhappy about the travel restrictions, about the quarantine restrictions, and you can see that many businesses have really suffered.”

Hong Kong has stayed firm with its zero-Covid approach with a view to reopening the border with the mainland, which has adopted the same strategy.

But Prof Fukuda said Hong Kong and the mainland needed to agree on how the city could move towards living with the virus, an approach adopted by many other countries.

“There’s going to have to be agreement with the mainland, there’s going to have to be an understanding with the population, that once you open borders and make travel easier, cases will increase in Hong Kong,” he said.

Since the recent emergence of the coronavirus’ Omicron variant, which is possibly more transmissible and might also reduce vaccine effectiveness, Hong Kong has tightened restrictions on travel from more than 20 countries considered high risk.

Non-residents from such countries are banned from entering Hong Kong, and only fully vaccinated residents will be allowed in.

“This is not a long-term strategy for dealing with Omicron. It’s not a long-term strategy for dealing with new variants which are going to keep coming up,” Prof Fukuda said.

American citizen Fukuda, 66, a former senior World Health Organisation official, was an adviser to the Hong Kong government on Covid-19 and coronavirus vaccines until Dec 1. He conceded that his advice had not always been in line with the administration.

He came to Hong Kong in 2016 and became director of the University of Hong Kong’s public health school the following year.

Prof Fukuda, whose last day of work is Wednesday (Dec 8), said he was told in August last year his five-year contract would not be renewed. He said he was surprised by the decision and was not given any reasons.

“I have an unusually broad, global experience working with a lot of countries,” he said, adding that he had been looking forward to passing on his experience to students.

“You know, there are not so many people that can do that,” he said. “I don’t see the strategic value of not retaining somebody like me.”

HKU did not comment on Prof Fukuda’s case specifically, but a spokesman said last year that its retirement age was 60 for all staff and professors reappointed beyond 65 were “rare cases who display exceptionally high levels of academic achievements”.

Prof Fukuda said that overall, Hong Kong had done a “remarkably good job” in combating Covid-19. SOUTH CHINA MORNING POST

 

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Covid-19 coronavirus Omicron covid zero Hong Kong China

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