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Tuesday, May 30, 2023

Hong Kong risks reopening mainland border at the worst moment

Hong Kong risks reopening mainland border at the worst moment

Hong Kong is coinciding the border reopening with a huge surge in Covid-19 infections in the mainland. After waiting years for quarantine-free travel, surely it can wait just a few more months until cases have peaked.

As Chief Executive John Lee Ka-chiu announced the government’s plan to reopen Hong Kong’s border with the mainland, the city was caught unprepared amid the rapid change in Beijing’s Covid-19 policy and the moves by foreign countries to limit the arrival of possible Covid carriers from China.

While Hong Kong was celebrating the long-awaited announcement of the reopening, Japan imposed restrictions on flights not only from mainland China, but from Hong Kong and Macau. Travellers may now fly from Hong Kong to Japan as before only if they have not visited the mainland in the past seven days.

The United States also issued new requirements for travellers who have been in Hong Kong in the past 10 days to present a negative PCR or antigen test result before boarding their flight.

Travellers and airlines in Hong Kong are the immediate victims of the new regulations. The city’s government can only protest against the decision by Japan and other countries.

Admittedly, this was not an easy situation for anyone to predict. Nevertheless, the Hong Kong government must take prompt action to minimise the impact.

Hong Kong still faces a severe Covid-19 situation. Last month saw a record-high number of imported cases. Meanwhile, following the relaxation of Covid restrictions in the mainland, the number of cases is also believed to have soared to record highs. Residents on both sides of the border have been scrambling to get pain relief and fever medicine.

Empty shelves are seen where cold and flu medicine should be at a shop in Kowloon Bay, Hong Kong, on December 27.

Now, as Hong Kong gets ready to open its border, and with the axing of testing requirements for incoming travellers, the city can expect a lot more visitors. Given that more than half the passengers on a recent flight from China to Italy tested positive for Covid-19, is our government prepared for the arrival of large numbers of potential Covid carriers?

There is no doubt that reopening the border with mainland China is a top priority. Three years of isolation has done a great deal of damage to the city’s economy and its status as connector between China and the world. Reopening the border will bring the economic opportunities the city desperately needs.

Nevertheless, we should be careful not to let the reopening become a burden. Given the short infection cycle of Omicron, it can be estimated that in just a few more months, the number of new cases in the mainland will reach its peak. There is no need for Hong Kong to be hasty while both the city and mainland are experiencing a surge in cases.

What is more important for the city is to keep a close eye on the Covid-19 situation in mainland China and implement measures accordingly to contain the spread.

The issue affects local people’s lives. Though Hong Kong has adjusted its medical system to the city’s own Covid-19 situation, it is necessary to keep monitoring incoming travellers from mainland China to ensure the number of cases doesn’t overburden the local healthcare system.

The supply of medication is another issue. The recent shortage of pain relief and flu medicine at chemists suggests the city is not ready for another wave of infections. This is more than a business matter; it is a matter of public interest that requires the Hong Kong government to step in.

Even more severe than the effect on local resources and infrastructure is the impact on the mentality and confidence of Hong Kong people. While many are grateful to see travellers returning, people also worry about the pressure that an increase in visitors will put the city under.

The Hong Kong government has assured the public that supplies of medicine are abundant. Yet until the currently empty pharmacy shelves are restocked, it will be difficult to put people’s minds at ease.

Public confidence is essential to the smooth reopening of the Hong Kong-mainland border. Reassuring the public that they are safe will reduce any chance of tensions rising between Hong Kong people and mainland visitors. Some may still remember that at the very beginning of the pandemic, a number of local restaurants refused to serve mainland visitors.

When the public is unable to put its trust in the government, people are more likely to take matters into their own hands. The damage this could cause would be greater than that of temporary government measures.

The Hong Kong government should not be afraid to take precautions to cope with the unfolding situation. Reopening the border is no doubt a priority, but the central government will understand that the timing right now is far from ideal.

Visitors from the mainland, or those in Hong Kong planning a return trip, will also no doubt understand the need for measures to stop the spread of Covid-19 from high-risk areas.

Furthermore, such measures would demonstrate that the Hong Kong government can act on its own on matters of public health, boosting international confidence in Hong Kong’s governance, and strengthening the city’s global connectivity in the long run.

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