Published: 01:58, May 6, 2021 | Updated: 12:57, May 6, 2021
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HK needs science-based border opening plan
By Henry Ho

Hong Kong last week expanded its non-quarantine return policy to all HKSAR residents living in the Chinese mainland, from the previous limitation to only those living in Guangdong and Macao.

Hong Kong has stayed vigilant after the recent emergence of a variant COVID-19 strain in the community that swiftly triggered residents’ fears of possible silent transmissions. Still, it does not necessarily mean that the reopening of the border with the mainland remains a distant prospect for all traveling and cross-border families. To expedite cross-border travelling, it is crucial for the Hong Kong administration to work with the central authorities to establish a border-reopening mechanism — under which all cross-border quarantine requirements and restrictions can be adjusted based on scientific proof.

While the expanded return policy should be applauded, it came four months later than the time frame to which the SAR government committed last year, without any plausible explanation such as a widespread outbreak in the mainland. The over-prudent approach adopted by the SAR government has resulted in the hampering of cross-border family reunions, schooling and normal business activities. It is apparent that the SAR government has not come up with a holistic plan on the reopening of borders. Looking ahead, will there be more exciting news regarding border-reopening following massive vaccinations?

The answer may be yes and no. While the mainland has showcased its institutional strengths by effectively controlling the pandemic among its 1.4 billion population within several months, Hong Kong has still been grappling with the pandemic and struggling hard toward the ultimate goal of zero infections. With rapid mass screening, lockdown measures and vaccination program, the pandemic has been swiftly controlled in the mainland and the ashes of the coronavirus wildfire will not burst into a conflagration. While numbers and statistics are critical to rein in the pandemic, effective governance of a city requires scientific, transparent and foreseeable COVID-fighting policies. 

Hong Kong has stayed vigilant after the recent emergence of a variant COVID-19 strain in the community that swiftly triggered residents’ fears of possible silent transmissions. Still, it does not necessarily mean that the reopening of the border with the mainland remains a distant prospect for all traveling and cross-border families

The SAR government, however, has given the public the impression that the opening of borders depends solely on the mainland and “seeking 14 days of zero infection” seems to be the only way out. Given the worldwide consensus that COVID-19 and its numerous variants are likely to be around us even after massive vaccination, Hong Kong should devise a border-reopening plan incorporating various scenarios for early discussions with Guangdong and the central authorities. 

Since the pandemic has ravaged the city, the local economy has been mired in deep recession and gloom. The coronavirus has devastated the tourism, retail and catering industries, causing many low-income families to suffer. The retail and catering sectors have seen a scramble to downsize operations, while inbound and outbound travel activities have plummeted. Reopening the border with the mainland would help revive the COVID-battered industries with more mainland travelers visiting the city.

Cross-border families have been the hardest-hit by the border closure. Cross-border students in mainland schools have also suffered as they were previously barred from education in universities and schools. Above all, business activities between Hong Kong and the mainland have come to a standstill as full reactivation of the local economy remains highly uncertain. 

Now the time is ripe for Hong Kong to reopen the border with the mainland, with its daily local case numbers often single-digits. While COVID-19 has seasonal spikes, along with the fact that daily caseloads can fluctuate, Hong Kong should seize the “window of opportunity” in summer to roll out a border-reopening mechanism — under which cross-border quarantine requirements can be adjusted flexibly according to specified criteria and guidelines. 

A comprehensive border-reopening mechanism should meet at least the following conditions: overall low daily number of cases; complete testing results of nucleic acid and antibodies; and vaccination record of visitors. Based on these data, visitors may be classified as low-, medium- or high-risk groups with different requirements of quarantine. 

For example, the mandatory quarantine period for Hong Kong travelers who have received both jabs and got positive antibody test results could be shortened to around three days after arrival in the mainland, pending the results of one or two virus tests at the hotel. For those without vaccination, the quarantine period could be reduced to, say seven days with two or three tests during the period. 

A prudent yet proactive approach should be adopted by the SAR government. A phased approach, such as opening up in Guangdong first followed by the whole country, is understandable. Yet, with the pandemic possibly deteriorating after autumn, a timeline for opening up is essential. With clear and transparent criteria for adjustments, the mechanism would ensure that no political or xenophobic considerations would interfere with its smooth operations. 

Furthermore, a mechanism that is based only on science and medical proof should come along with non-discriminatory policies with respect to mainland visitors. With a daily quota system at border crossings in place, travelers who come from the same cities or provinces in the mainland should enjoy equal treatment, regardless of whether they are Hong Kong residents or mainland travelers. 

The mainland has set an exemplary example by taking concrete action to make vaccines a public good and having its population inoculated. The SAR health authorities, however, are still facing an uphill battle to get most of the Hong Kong people vaccinated amid a low take-up rate. The authorities should press ahead with vaccination among citizens as a matter of urgency. 

Hong Kong residents should essentially be getting vaccinated for the sake of personal and public health benefits, thereby expediting the full resumption of cross-border travel. There is some kind of fascination about resumption of normal lives in Hong Kong after the government announced the incentive plans for different industries to encourage mass vaccinations. The more people who get the jabs, the greater the chance of life returning to normal, and only by pulling together can Hong Kong score a victory against the COVID-19 pandemic.

The author is founder and chairman of the One Country Two Systems Youth Forum.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.