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Hong Kong confirmed no new Covid-19 infections for the first time in more than a month on Thursday, a day after the city’s leader revealed that a suspended quarantine-free travel scheme allowing residents to return home from mainland China would soon resume.
Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor told a Communist Party publication that in addition to bringing Hongkongers home, a separate scheme designed to lure visitors to the city would also be launched “as soon as possible” once an outbreak on the mainland had stabilised.
That plan would eventually extend beyond locations in neighbouring Guangdong province to cities such as Shanghai, she said.
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“The Hong Kong government has been tightly monitoring the pandemic … and actively looking at ways to resume residents’ normal travel in an orderly way without increasing the public health risks to both places,” Lam said.
The city last reported no new coronavirus cases on July 31, though the rare occurrence is unlikely to extend beyond one day, as about five people tested preliminary-positive for the virus on Thursday. The local infection count now stands at 12,113, with 212 related deaths.
In an interview with Shanghai newspaper Jiefang Daily, Lam said the Return2HK scheme, suspended early last month due to coronavirus outbreaks in several mainland provinces, would be “resumed shortly”. The scheme allows Hongkongers returning from the mainland to skip isolation, but since August 5, residents have been made to quarantine at home for two weeks.
Come2HK, a separate scheme allowing non-residents to travel to Hong Kong from the mainland without quarantine, would be launched “as soon as possible”, Lam said.
Shelved just ahead of its planned June launch because of an outbreak in Guangdong, the programme aimed at luring visitors to the city would eventually be expanded to places such as Shanghai, she added.
Government coronavirus adviser Professor David Hui Shu-cheong said he believed there was no issue with resuming the Return2HK scheme as long as people were coming from provinces free of Covid-19.
Most Hong Kong residents were in Guangdong, “so I don’t see a big problem with that”, Hui said.
“They still need to undergo testing before departure. On arrival, they still need to undergo medical surveillance and tests,” he noted.
Dr Joseph Tsang Kay-yan, chairman of the Medical Association’s advisory committee on communicable diseases agreed with Hui, but said travellers using the scheme would need to be fully vaccinated and testing had to be rigorous.
“Sometimes information on Covid-19 outbreaks on the mainland or other countries may lag,” he said. “From a public health concern, it will be much safer to have viral testing for each individual coming to Hong Kong, no matter if it is from the mainland or elsewhere.”
To prevent cross-infections, respiratory medicine expert Dr Leung Chi-chiu suggested separating not just travellers arriving from the mainland but also airport and airline staff serving them.
The mainland reported 28 new cases on Thursday, including nine in Guangdong and six in Shanghai.
Meanwhile, civil service chief Patrick Nip Tak-kuen, who is in charge of the city’s inoculation drive, said the government planned to offer jabs to the elderly in places they frequented to make vaccination easier.
Speaking after a visit to an outreach service at a mall in Lok Fu, Nip noted more than 4.16 million residents, about 60 per cent of the population, had received their first dose of coronavirus vaccine, while reiterating that certain venues could become off-limits to the unvaccinated should a fifth Covid-19 wave hit the city.
“Those measures won’t take effect immediately … But people should understand the importance of getting vaccinated, both to protect themselves and their communities,” Nip said.
Separately, the Food and Health Bureau said the Hong Kong Quality Assurance Agency had concluded its third-party audit into BGI, a government contractor for Covid-19 testing services that was embroiled in a number of contamination mishaps between January and April.
The mainland-backed firm reported an unusually high number of 30 positive cases in one day in April, prompting an investigation by top microbiologist Professor Yuen Kwok-yung and the government-commissioned audit.
The report by the Quality Assurance Agency recommended a new workflow for handling preliminary-positive samples, a dedicated team to audit the testing process more frequently, more investment in automation and a standardised process for addressing staff fatigue.
The bureau said that following the conclusion of the audit, the firm would be reinstated as one of nine government contractors for Covid-19 testing starting this month, and would provide mobile testing services across the city if necessary.
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