Hong Kong has found a new sense of optimism about the border with mainland China reopening as the city has succeeded in driving down its Covid-19 caseload, with leader Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor saying the goal of “zero local infections” is now within reach.
But is there really light at the end of the tunnel? Health experts have called for strict quarantine rules and border controls to remain in place, while warning a single outbreak, however small, could ruin the city’s coronavirus efforts.
Reviving cross-border travel is seen as a priority for Hong Kong authorities to help boost the economy. Hong Kong closed all but three border checkpoints in February last year to keep out the virus.
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Last November, Lam pointed to a target of zero local infections – a point at which Hong Kong had gone 14 days without an untraceable case – as an important condition for the border with the mainland reopening.
Hongkongers on the mainland and in Macau are eligible to come back to the city without undergoing quarantine under the “Return2HK scheme” if they have tested negative for Covid-19. But the one-way arrangement is not reciprocal at this stage.
Lam said on Tuesday the city was getting close to its goal of zero local cases. With the exception of a weekend case still being investigated, Hong Kong had, as of Tuesday, gone 25 days without an untraceable local infection.
The positive test of a four-year-old boy on Saturday resulted in quarantine orders for more than 20 children, staff and family members connected to a local kindergarten. But health authorities were re-examining the source of infection and whether the test was a false positive.
“Hong Kong still has good conditions for discussing reopening the mainland border … as the situation in both areas has been stabilised,” Lam said.
Government pandemic adviser Professor David Hui Shu-cheong said maintaining zero untraceable cases would be possible as long as border controls remained stringent, and cross-infection during hotel quarantine was prevented.
“What would be worrying is a repeat of the incident at a Tsim Sha Tsui hotel, where a man was likely to have been infected by someone in another room and only had onset of symptoms after he had been out in the community,” Hui said. “Luckily it did not lead to a large outbreak.”
Hui was referring to a 30-year-old engineer who flew in from Dubai. The man was the first case to be discovered locally involving a mutant coronavirus strain, and his infection was later linked to a cluster that grew to more than 10 people.
Hui also noted that a spike in Covid-19 cases in Taiwan and Singapore reflected the importance of border controls.
Taiwan had kept the virus largely under control until late last month, when an outbreak was linked to pilots from its largest carrier, China Airlines, and an airport hotel where many of them stayed.
The self-ruled island in mid-April relaxed quarantine requirements for non-vaccinated pilots and other crew members from five days to three. At the same time, it said vaccinated crew members on Taiwanese airlines no longer had to quarantine.
In Singapore, a sharp uptick in unlinked cases prompted the government to tighten restrictions over the weekend, banning dining-in at food places and limiting social gatherings to two people until June 13.
Beijing has regarded epidemic control as provincial and municipal cadres’ top priority, and any oversight could cost officials their job. Last October, Sui Zhenhua, Communist Party secretary and director of the Qingdao health commission, was suspended, while Qingdao hospital president Deng Kai was sacked over an outbreak in the eastern mainland city.
In mid-January, Tonghua city in Jilin province immediately ordered a lockdown after a spike in Covid-19 cases.
Earlier this month, the Guangdong health commission announced that travellers from Hong Kong would be required to quarantine in a hotel for two weeks and spend a further seven days confined for observation in their homes or other accommodation, following the emergence of mutated coronavirus strains in the city.
Asked if he was optimistic that cross-border travel could resume soon, Hui said there was “a good chance” because the city had tougher infection control measures in place after the fourth wave of infections began last November.
Infectious disease expert Dr Leung Chi-chiu agreed the current trend on daily cases was a positive sign, indicating the infection rate was low.
But he suggested that quotas for quarantine-free travel between Hong Kong and the mainland should be set up, with priority given to fully vaccinated people as an incentive to get the jab.
“We must achieve herd immunity for life to return to normal. We cannot keep social-distancing rules in place forever, otherwise the socio-economic consequences would be huge,” he said.
University of Hong Kong microbiologist Dr Ho Pak-leung, meanwhile, said Hong Kong could achieve zero local untraceable cases for a short time by maintaining social-distancing rules and wearing masks, but only vaccination would work in the long run.
“If Hongkongers continue to adopt a wait-and-see attitude, Covid-19 will not go away,” he told a local radio programme. “If people are not immunised and pandemic fatigue kicks in, things will eventually go wrong.”
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