Coronavirus: hopes raised for EU to ease entry restrictions covering Hong Kong, with Brussels poised to update Covid-19 travel rules

·4-min read

The European Union is set to update its Covid-19 travel restrictions covering arrivals from Hong Kong, with hopes rising in the city that Brussels will ease the curbs to allow leisure and business trips to the bloc.

But health experts have said Hong Kong cannot afford to open up to incoming travellers in return because of the city’s stubbornly low vaccination rate.

An EU office spokesman said a decision on the status of Hong Kong travellers was expected to be announced on Friday. Currently, only essential travel from Hong Kong to the EU is allowed.

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Coronavirus: EU to ease restrictions on US, Hong Kong, Taiwan travellers

A source familiar with Brussels policymaking said there was a high chance that travel rules would be relaxed for arrivals from Hong Kong, with the economically critical summer travel season fast approaching.

The city confirmed no new coronavirus cases on Thursday, but University of Hong Kong microbiologist Dr Ho Pak-leung said that the local vaccination rate still lagged behind countries in the EU. With Hong Kong still vulnerable to outbreaks, he said, it would be more difficult for the city to relax restrictions for incoming travellers.

“Those countries now have the right conditions for reopening travel, which is vaccination,” Ho told a radio show. “But Hong Kong’s immunisation rate is still far behind theirs and it could lead to the virus spreading in the community again.”

Tourism lawmaker Yiu Si-wing said that while whitelisting Hongkongers might help the European travel industry and the aviation sector, it was unlikely to be a huge draw for the city’s residents, as they would still have to pay for quarantine in a designated hotel upon their return under the current rules.

“If they spend a week in Europe and have to do 14 days of quarantine when they come back, most people are unlikely to want, or even be able, to spend 20 or so days in total for a holiday,” Yiu told another radio show.

People queue up to get vaccinated at Sun Yat Sen Memorial Park Sports Centre in Sai Ying Pun on Wednesday. Photo: Sam Tsang
People queue up to get vaccinated at Sun Yat Sen Memorial Park Sports Centre in Sai Ying Pun on Wednesday. Photo: Sam Tsang

The potential new relaxations from Brussels could relate to quarantine and testing requirements, the EU digital Covid-19 certificate or so-called vaccine passport, and the use of mobile coronavirus contact-tracing and warning apps.

At present, Hong Kong considers some EU members – such as Belgium, France, Germany, the Netherlands and Italy – high-risk destinations, which means unvaccinated travellers from those places have to undergo 21 days of quarantine, while immunised ones must still do 14.

Yiu said he did not expect Hong Kong to offer to relax travel restrictions for EU travellers at the moment.

“The government right now is likely to be more focused on reopening its borders with mainland China,” he said. “It is unlikely we would risk triggering another outbreak just to have relaxed travel with another place and jeopardise the chances of travel to and from the mainland.”

Reached for comment on the EU decision, the Food and Health Bureau on Thursday said it was not changing its rules for incoming travellers at this time.

Hong Kong’s vaccination rate has picked up in recent days following a wave of incentives being offered to inoculated residents by the business community. But as of Thursday, only 16.4 per cent of the city’s 7.5 million people had received both doses of a coronavirus vaccine.

Mauritius and the Thai island of Phuket have taken steps to welcome back Hong Kong travellers. Those arrangements, taking effect on July 15 and July 2, respectively, both list vaccination as a prerequisite for quarantine-free entry.

The Mauritius and Phuket offers are so far unilateral, and Hong Kong – which has one of the most stringent quarantine requirements in the world – still considers the destinations to be medium and high risk, respectively.

The only quarantine-free travel deal Hong Kong has struck with an overseas destination is with Singapore. However, that long-awaited travel bubble was postponed indefinitely for a second time in May due to a fresh coronavirus outbreak in the Lion City.

The city’s overall case tally stood at 11,881 cases, with 210 related deaths.

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