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Hong Kong announces planned border re-opening with China as Omicron surges at Christmas

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SHANGHAI — China, grappling with a new wave of COVID-19 infections, took another step towards loosening its pandemic-related restrictions on Saturday when Hong Kong’s leader announced it would aim to re-open its borders with the mainland by mid-January.

Speaking at a news conference upon returning from Beijing, Hong Kong Chief executive John Lee said authorities would aim to “gradually, orderly, and fully” re-open all entry points between the two sides, and coordinate with the government of nearby Shenzhen to manage the flow of people.

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At present, individuals hoping to enter the mainland through Hong Kong can only do so through the city’s airport or two checkpoints – Shenzhen Bay or the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge.

Entrants into the mainland must also undergo a period of hotel quarantine before they can move about freely.

Hong Kong and Beijing shut their borders in early 2020 as COVID first surfaced and they have remained closed since then, as China has capped inbound travelers as part of its strict “zero-COVID” policy.

Beijing loosened China’s domestic zero-COVID restrictions earlier this month, dropping mandatory testing requirements and travel restrictions.

While many have welcomed the easing, families and the health system were unprepared for the resulting surge of infections. Hospitals are scrambling for beds and blood, pharmacies for drugs and authorities are racing to build clinics.

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COVID CHRISTMAS

In advance of Christmas, Shanghai authorities urged residents to stay at home this weekend to curb the virus’s spread. The holiday is not traditionally celebrated in China, but it is common for young couples and some families to spend the holiday together.

Despite those warnings, an annual Christmas market held at the Bund, a commercial area, was packed with attendees.

“My friends are basically all positive, and all have basically recovered,” said Liu Yang, 23, an IT worker attending the market.

“We wanted to take advantage of Christmas, and it’s the weekend, we wanted to walk around and enjoy the air, so we came here.”

Still, the spread of Omicron is dampening festivities for other retailers and eateries.

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Many Shanghai restaurants have canceled Christmas parties normally held for regulars, while hotels have capped reservations due to staff shortages, said Jacqueline Mocatta, who works in the hospitality industry.

“There’s only a certain amount of customers we can accept given our manpower, with a majority of team members who are unwell at the moment,” she said.

SCEPTICISM ABOUT OFFICIAL DATA

Infections in China are likely more than a million a day with deaths at more than 5,000 a day, British-based health data firm Airfinity said this week, describing the estimates as a “stark contrast” to official data.

China’s national health authority on Saturday reported 4,128 daily symptomatic COVID-19 infections, and no deaths for a fourth consecutive day.

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Bloomberg News reported on Friday that nearly 37 million people may have been infected with COVID on a single day this past week, citing estimates from the government’s top health authority. Authorities did not comment on the report.

The emergency hotline in Taiyuan in the northern province of Shanxi was receiving over 4,000 calls a day, a local media outlet said on Saturday.

Taiyuan authorities urged residents to call the number only for medical emergencies, saying guidance about COVID “does not fall within the scope of the hotline.”

A health official in Qingdao said the port city was seeing roughly 500,000 daily infections, media reported on Friday. In the southern city of Dongguan, a major manufacturing hub, daily infections are reaching 250,000-300,000, local authorities told domestic media.

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The surge has strained the medical sector, in particular blood repositories, as a lack of donors has caused reserves to dwindle.

On Saturday, China’s National Health Commission said in a statement that individuals who suffered mild or ordinary COVID-19 symptoms can safely donate blood a few days after their symptoms subside.

In Wuhan, the central city where COVID emerged three years ago, media reported on Friday that the local blood repository had just 4,000 units, enough to last two days. The repository called on people to “roll up their sleeves and donate blood.” (Reporting by Josh Horwitz and Jing Bian in Shanghai; additional reporting by Xihao Jiang in Shanghai; Editing by William Mallard and Philippa Fletcher)

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