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Business travel will be given priority if the border between Hong Kong and mainland China reopens but strict quotas and conditions will be imposed, the city’s leader has revealed.
Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor on Tuesday spelled out the framework for quarantine-free travel being discussed with mainland authorities at a lunch with business leaders, while also appealing to those present to promote or even mandate the use of the government’s Covid-19 contact-tracing app for entry into their buildings.
Lam revealed the framework discussions while answering questions from trade group representatives, who told her the business community was very eager to see the resumption of the quarantine-free travel between the mainland and Hong Kong.
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Lam said the government met mainland authorities in September and was “looking forward to another meeting shortly”, and that Hong Kong would do whatever was possible to fulfil the prerequisites or requirements to allow travel to resume.
While not going into details about the discussions, Lam said travel would be based on categories and prioritisation to regulate the flow in a gradual and orderly manner.
“I’m sure business needs will take precedence over individual tourists. Secondly, it will have to be quota-based in order to control the numbers. And then, thirdly, there will be conditions,” she said in her speech.
“Whoever wants to travel, even if you belong to the priority category, even if you manage to get a quota, you have to fulfil certain conditions. And that will be the framework of what is now being discussed.”
Lam said her administration was “100 per cent committed” to delivering the resumption of travel with the mainland, and hopefully afterwards with overseas destinations for businesses and the Hong Kong people.
Her disclosure came a day after Hong Kong announced that quarantine exemptions would be limited to a handful of groups deemed critical to the city’s survival from November 12.
Most foreign diplomatic personnel and top business executives will no longer be exempted as part of a stepped-up campaign to keep out imported Covid-19 infections. Only a handful of groups, such as cross-border truck and bus drivers, and air and cargo ship crew, will continue to be allowed entry without undergoing mandatory isolation.
Noting some consuls general were in Tuesday’s audience, Lam apologised for the “little bit of trouble and inconvenience” brought by the measures, but said the government had been working very hard to resume travel.
“I am sorry about that, but we have to do that in order to achieve the goal together. My final appeal is: please help us in promoting, or even mandating the use of the ‘Leave Home Safe’ mobile app when entering your business premises or institutions, and also encourage Hong Kong people, especially elderly people, to take the jab. Thank you very much.”
Aside from those with exemptions, anyone entering public buildings, including wet markets and government offices, since Monday must use the contact-tracing app.
In response to the tightened quarantine exemptions, the European Union Office to Hong Kong and Macau earlier said it agreed with steps the government was taking to reopen the border, but wanted more predictability and transparency when it came to how countries were assigned the Covid-19 risk levels that determined quarantine lengths.
The US consulate urged the government to come up with a road map or offer signposts for reopening Hong Kong to global travellers, in a way that addressed public health concerns and provided more certainty for businesses.
The mandatory use of the app is also seen as a necessary first step towards meeting Beijing’s concerns over pandemic controls with the aim of eventually reopening the border, a deal local officials have yet to secure despite an improving vaccination rate and months with effectively no local infections.
The compulsory requirement has raised concerns among organisations working with vulnerable groups such as the homeless, who often do not own smartphones.
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