Hong Kong could start quarantine-free business travel corridor with China, advisers urge
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Hong Kong could start quarantine-free business travel corridor with China, advisers urge

Traveller walk in the departure hall at Hong Kong International Airport amid the coronavirus pandemic in Hong Kong on March 21, 2022. (Reuters photo)
Traveller walk in the departure hall at Hong Kong International Airport amid the coronavirus pandemic in Hong Kong on March 21, 2022. (Reuters photo)

HONG KONG: Hong Kong should aim for a quarantine-free business travel corridor as a precursor to a full-scale reopening of its borders, as the city's reconnection with mainland China and other parts of the world is ranked high among Beijing's priorities, government advisers have said.

To achieve that, the incoming administration under Chief Executive-designate John Lee should fight for more flexible rules during negotiations on border reopening, analysts and medical experts added.

The State Council's Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office (HKMAO) on Sunday laid out five expectations for Lee's team, including tackling pressing issues such as the border reopening and strengthening the city's role as "an international hub connecting the mainland and the world".

In response, Executive Council members Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee and Jeffrey Lam Kin-fung proposed on Monday that Hong Kong allow a quarantine-free travel corridor for businessmen to head to the mainland on a small-scale basis.

Travellers could be required to use smartphone apps with contact-tracing functions, such as Guangdong province's health code, she added, for "convergence with their system".

Ip, tipped to become convenor of Exco's non-official members under Lee's administration, also said she believed senior officials would broaden the ground rules in future talks and not only focus on daily caseloads as the major criteria for negotiation.

Incoming health minister Lo Chung-mau had on Sunday said not all mainland policies, such as universal testing, could be immediately copied by Hong Kong and any policy changes would be based on scientific data and require further study by various departments.

"Of course you look at the daily infection numbers," Ip said. "But [officials from both sides] would also look at the hospitalisation figures, how many critical cases there are, the age of patients in the intensive care unit … and the overall vaccination rate in Hong Kong.

"Governments around the world are trying to prevent their public health systems from collapsing … and Hong Kong must avoid exporting risks to the mainland."

Lee had, in his capacity as Hong Kong's No 2 official, negotiated with mainland authorities last year on gradually reopening the border, based on the principle that the city could achieve zero local infections.

Ip's views were echoed by government medical adviser Professor David Hui Shu-cheong, who said the new administration could press Hong Kong's case during border reopening talks by emphasising a stable streak of hospitalisation and severe cases.

"There is no chance to proceed on last year's discussion basis as the prerequisite at the time was zero Covid and we have over 1,000 community cases daily now. But an opportunity could arise when China shifts its national policy as it too had experienced a large Omicron outbreak like Hong Kong," he said, referring to the Covid-19 crisis in Shanghai.

Lau Siu-kai, vice-president of the semi-official Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macau Studies think tank, said he believed Beijing was more concerned about Hong Kong getting the epidemic situation under control, as it was a necessary condition for reopening its borders.

"The HKMAO is listing border reopening as one of the priorities. This indicates that Beijing also wants this to be done to boost John Lee's popularity and authority," he said.

Lau also suggested that the concept of "zero Covid" had become more of a description of mainland authorities' direction and expectation, rather than a strict numerical goal that cities such as Hong Kong, Shanghai and Beijing had to achieve.

"Beijing knows that for Hong Kong to remain connected with the rest of the world, it has to be given some flexibility, and mainland travel could start from small-scale [initiatives or schemes]," he added.

An example of a "small-scale" initiative could be to issue up to 1,000 "point-to-point" business visas for Hongkongers to travel to mainland provinces, such as Guangdong, to meet their employees and business partners, Exco member Lam said.

"If you have a company or factory to visit, a contract to sign or a business cooperation to discuss, you need to specify the location that you want to go," the business sector lawmaker said.

The business visa should be rolled out first and Hong Kong's seven-day quarantine requirement for international arrivals could be gradually relaxed to three or four days if the daily caseload of imported cases dropped to a low two-digit figure, Lam added.

Ip said, however, that she believed the seven-day quarantine rule could remain "until the end of 2022 or early 2023", despite the city losing expats and tourism to regional rivals such as Singapore.

Allan Zeman, chairman of the Lan Kwai Fong Group, suggested Hong Kong draw on experience from Thailand, where international travellers can stay in a hotel for one night while waiting for a negative PCR test result before being released. Another PCR test could also be done in the community five days after leaving the hotel, he added.

"For the international reopening, maybe we have to [take a leaf from] what other countries have done if we want to play it safe," Zeman said.

But he acknowledged that the mainland would not want to open its borders immediately and said he supported closed-loop or travel bubble arrangements that could be gradually eased as a compromise.

"I can't imagine China is going to open up for everything now. They will be cautious until October because of the [coming] party congress," he said. "It's up to China to have their rules and see what works for them, but I can only say we can be creative as well."

Hui said he believed the city had met other criteria, such as launching a risk-exposure health code, laid out by mainland authorities at last year's talks.

But professor Yuen Kwok-yung, another government adviser and a top microbiologist at the University of Hong Kong, pointed out mainland authorities could demand more than just the lowering of caseloads in renewed talks between both sides.

He cited the city's limited ability to contact, trace and isolate as opposed to the mainland's systematic and efficient approach to containing outbreaks as a stark difference that could prove problematic.

"Thus their requirement of opening the border is much more stringent," he said.

Separately, International Air Transport Association (IATA) director general Willie Walsh warned that Hong Kong's travel restrictions meant the city's airport was facing increasing competition from other hubs.

"I think it's very important for Hong Kong … for the airport to reopen without restrictions so that it can maintain its position as a global hub airport," Walsh told the media at the IATA's annual general meeting in Doha.

"The longer Hong Kong operates with significant restrictions, the more structural damage will be done to the hub."

Walsh warned that with "every day that passes", there was an increasing risk of Hong Kong "not being on the agenda" for many airlines who would look to other regions instead.

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