Businesses and the city’s economy are reeling from widespread closures, while doctors say many of the city’s 7.4 million residents are grappling with rising mental health issues, particularly among low-income families.
Lam’s policy turnaround comes after her administration has been scolded repeatedly by politicians, pro-Beijing media and on Chinese social media, just weeks before the city is due to hold an election on May 8 to choose who will lead the territory for the next five years.
She declined to comment on whether she will run for a new term.
A plan to carry out mass coronavirus testing would be put on hold, Lam said, citing experts who said it was not a suitable time. Hong Kong needs to have a clear exit strategy rather than trying to completely eradicate the virus, experts said.
While the former British colony has officially stuck to the “dynamic zero” coronavirus policy, similar to mainland China, which seeks to curb all outbreaks, it has been shifting to mitigation strategies as deaths skyrocketed.
Hong Kong has registered the most deaths per million people globally in recent weeks – more than 24 times that of rival Singapore – due to a large proportion of elderly who were unvaccinated as the highly transmissible Omicron variant ripped through care homes since February.
The densely packed city has recorded more than 1 million infections since the pandemic started and about 5,000 deaths – most of them in the past month.
As many as 4 million people could be infected according to estimates from health experts as many residents have contracted the virus and isolated at home without notifying authorities.
Lam said social distancing measures would be eased in phases starting April 21, allowing restaurant dining after 6pm with tables of four people from two currently.
Nightclubs, pubs and beaches would be allowed to open in the second phase while people would be allowed to exercise outdoors without a mask. Masks are currently compulsory everywhere outside the home.
Until this year, Hong Kong had been far more successful at controlling the coronavirus than many other cities its size, but the latest wave of infections swamped its world-class medical system, morgues are overflowing and public confidence in the city government is at an all-time low.
Shanghai Disneyland closes
China’s financial hub of Shanghai reported on Monday a record daily surge in local COVID-19 infections as authorities scrambled to test residents and rein in the Omicron variant, while closing its Disney resort until further notice.
Until recent weeks relatively unscathed by coronavirus, Shanghai reported 24 new domestically transmitted COVID cases with confirmed symptoms for Sunday and 734 local asymptomatic infections, official data showed on Monday.
It is the fourth consecutive day that Shanghai’s local asymptomatic infections have increased.
Although the tally of infections is tiny by global standards, Shanghai has quickly followed China’s “dynamic clearance” policies, shutting schools and testing residential compounds in the effort to limit the spread of the virus.
“When it comes to the entire situation of epidemic control and prevention that we are facing, it is very complex and serious, and it is also a very big test for us,” city health official Wu Jinglei told a news briefing.
Shanghai will stick with “dynamic clearance”, Wu added, saying he hoped for continued public support for the policy.
The city also shut the Shanghai Disney Resort from Monday until further notice.
Shenzhen city said it would allow offices and factories to restart operations from Monday and that public transport would also resume, after residents in the city completed three rounds of COVID-19 testing, state broadcaster CCTV reported.
Government officials told a press conference that the epidemic situation in the southern Chinese manufacturing hub had been brought under control, CCTV said.
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