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Published: 21:53, July 19, 2021 | Updated: 10:39, July 20, 2021
Better alternatives to flight bans are available to keep city healthy
By Ho Lok-sang
Published:21:53, July 19, 2021 Updated:10:39, July 20, 2021 By Ho Lok-sang

There are reports that the government is now considering allowing Hong Kong residents and domestic maids from formerly restricted countries to return to the city. This comes after weeks of flight bans that had effectively rendered arrivals from countries like the United Kingdom, the Philippines and Indonesia to zero. 

The flight bans were justified on the grounds that travelers from extremely high-risk countries, especially those affected by the more-contagious variants of COVID-19, could lead to outbreaks in the community. Hong Kong has been counting on keeping local infections at zero for 28 days or longer, which would allow the city to reopen its borders with the Chinese mainland and Macao. Air travel bubbles with countries that have succeeded in containing the COVID-19 virus may then also be arranged, jump-starting the badly hit economy. The proposed Singapore and Hong Kong air travel bubble, which had been aborted a few times due to outbreaks in either city, is a case in point.   

However, imposing flight bans altogether is like dodging the challenge of implementing a quarantine that is 100 percent effective, which is understandably difficult. If flights are banned altogether, an ineffective quarantine would not matter. There could be no need for quarantine at all because no one is coming in. 

Currently, our daily arrivals at our airport are down more than 95 percent from its heyday in 2018. On July 13, for example, we had only 745 arrivals at Hong Kong International Airport, which handled 74.4 million passengers in 2018. That translates to 203,836 per day, including transit passengers. For the first half of this year, Cathay Pacific reported a yearly decline of 96.4 percent in passenger trips. Flight bans certainly played a part in these numbers.   

While flight bans certainly will help keep infections out of Hong Kong, it would have been far better if the authorities had taken up the challenge of implementing more effective quarantine and testing. In principle, if quarantine is done effectively and all the tests are done accurately, infections would be identified and handled properly. Today we have 34 quarantine hotels providing over 11,000 rooms for incoming visitors. If we ban all flights, we would have no need for the quarantine hotels. If we reduce the flights to a trickle, our quarantine hotels would have very little business and their services would not be financially viable. The right approach is perfecting our quarantine and tests and managing flight volumes so that imported infections would not overwhelm our capacity to take care of them. 

It is true that both false negatives and false positives are possible. Flight bans is the “playing safe” option. Although achieving zero infections for 28-plus days may allow us to open our borders with the mainland and with Macao, which is certainly important for our economy, particularly our retail sectors, keeping our airline alive is also very important. I agree that Hong Kong’s role as an air travel hub needs to be preserved and so I support the government’s injection of capital to bail out Cathay Pacific. But no airline can survive with a prolonged near-suspension of services. In any case, as a “world city”, Hong Kong needs to be connected with other markets. Many Hong Kong families are suffering because of the flight bans that prevent their hired domestic maids from arriving or returning to work for them or prevent their loved ones from coming back. Unprecedented flight bans are also causing great problems for the quarantine hotels. 

If a country is truly high risk, it does make sense to reduce the frequency of flights, as bringing in a big number of COVID-19 patients with the new virus variants within a short time could overwhelm our medical staff and overburden our facilities. To minimize the risks of errors, it is possible to have two different labs doing the tests for each quarantined person. Our team of experts has done a good job conducting investigations for domestic infections and identifying possible loopholes. For example, it was discovered that the cleaning and sterilization work in quarantine hotels was done too hastily, which could allow viruses in the environment to stay alive before the next person takes up the room. The government would do well to rely on them to plug this and other loopholes so that our quarantine eventually become 100 percent effective.     

It is gratifying to note that recent compulsory tests performed on buildings where a domestic infection was identified all turned out to be negative. This testifies to the effectiveness of the community effort in social distancing, hygiene, and mask wearing. Given the warning signs we see from multiple countries with new surges, it is important to continue to be vigilant. This community effort should continue, and flight bans should be lifted. To put it simply, we should replace flight bans with flight frequency management, more-effective and more frequent tests on quarantined people, vaccination requirements for visitors, and safer, sterilized hotel rooms.    

Let’s hope that the flight bans will be lifted in a way that will not jeopardize the safety of our community. This will take the effort of all parties, and continued progress in our vaccination effort will certainly play an important part, too.

The author is director of Pan Sutong Shanghai-Hong Kong Economic Policy Research Institute, Lingnan University.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily. 

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