HONG KONG—Hong Kong's new government on Thursday suspended a long-standing flight route ban that penalized airlines for bringing in coronavirus cases and severely impeded travel into the city, saying it was "not very effective".
The financial hub has become increasingly isolated under harsh pandemic restrictions as it mirrors a lighter version of China's strict zero-COVID policy, with the once busy Hong Kong airport now a relative aviation graveyard.
On Thursday, new city leader John Lee's government said the "circuit breaker" rule was being suspended to "achieve the most in fighting the pandemic with the minimum cost on the society".
"At the current stage, continued implementation of the 'circuit breaker' mechanism is not very effective in preventing imported cases," the government said.
"Large number of passengers will have their itineraries disrupted due to the mechanism, and as the supply of seats on planes and quarantine hotel rooms fall short, the social costs generated will be remarkably high."
Traveling to Hong Kong will still pose a challenge as the city holds on to its mandatory 7-day hotel quarantine for all arrivals.
Rooms at the designated hotels are booked up for months in advance.
Previous city leader Carrie Lam introduced the rule last April, which banned airlines bringing in more than a handful of infected passengers from flying the designated route for a fixed period.
The penalty was reduced from 2 weeks to a shorter 5-day suspension during its 1-year imposition.
It was heavily criticized by industry representatives who said Hong Kong was in danger of losing its position as a global aviation hub.
So far in 2022 there had been more than 100 flight route bans, even though the coronavirus had become endemic within Hong Kong after a mass outbreak at the start of the year.
Reopening Hong Kong's border both with mainland China and the rest of the world was one of former top-cop John Lee's main campaign objectives before being selected to run the city by a small committee of Beijing loyalists in May.
But it is unclear how his ad ministration can achieve both objectives at the same time.
Lee told the city's legislature on Wednesday that Hong Kong was not ready to abandon its zero-COVID policy.
Hong Kong is currently facing an uptick of COVID-19 cases with numbers at their highest level since April.