Hopes for the reopening of Hong Kong’s border with mainland China have been raised after the Guangdong government withdrew its demand for the city to first have zero new Covid-19 cases.
A mainland government source on Monday said the province would consider allowing the return of quarantine-free travel with Hong Kong if there were only a handful of fresh infections over a two-week period, a relaxation of the zero cases previously stated as a prerequisite.
“They still want Hong Kong to keep Covid-19 cases low, in the single digits, for over 14 days as an indication that the situation in Hong Kong is under control,” the city-based source said.
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However, the relaxation on new infections would come with the condition that Hong Kong set up a comprehensive tracking system similar to that on the mainland, which required telecoms companies to support contact tracing efforts through the use of registered mobile phones.
The source said that would be challenging for Hong Kong to replicate, as it had different privacy laws and mobile registration processes. “But that is the direction we should go if we want to open the borders quickly.”
The source told the Post earlier that business travellers would be the first group to benefit from the border reopening.
Another source close to the Hong Kong government also confirmed that the mainland authorities no longer insisted on zero new cases, although the tally would need to be small and with limited or possibly no untraceable infections.
Hong Kong recorded 16 local cases in the past two weeks, of which nine had unknown origins. On Monday, the city reported six new cases, all imported.
Marcelo Thompson, an assistant professor of law at the University of Hong Kong, said that under the city’s privacy ordinance, a person’s location data could be used to “prevent serious harm to the physical or mental health” of the individual.
He said that under this context, the use of telecoms companies’ location data for the “purpose of addressing concerns with a pandemic seems to be authorised by the ordinance”.
But the ordinance also stated there should not be excessive collection of data, meaning if there was a contact tracing app, it would have to be installed by users voluntarily, Thompson said.
Francis Fong Po-kiu, honorary president of the Hong Kong Information Technology Federation, said there were different systems available to track the location of a mobile phone user. Various countries had also launched contact tracking apps to notify users of their risks of Covid-19 exposure.
“Normally, the authorities won’t need to approach those people themselves. In democratic societies, people are likely going for testing if they are told about the risks,” Fong said.
He said in places where the authorities would make use of location data, such as the mainland, facial recognition technology could also be used together with it to identify targets.
“It is indeed effective [in locating people], but I don’t think it is something you and I hope to see,” he said, adding that people in Hong Kong and the mainland had different concerns and attitudes towards privacy.
Hong Kong authorities plan to launch a Covid-19 exposure notification app in the middle of this month. But the app would only notify users whether they were in the same venue as a confirmed case at around the same time, and the government said no data would be stored in any central database.
Signals that Guangdong had started preparing for the border to reopen included the provincial government’s launch of a trial version of a WeChat app, equipped with a function titled “Guangdong-Hong Kong customs clearance”.
It allows residents on both sides to generate health codes to prove their health status when crossing the border. Options for Guangdong to Hong Kong (trial run) and Hong Kong to Guangdong (trial run) are available on the app. Residents of Guangdong and Macau use it to cross their shared border, which reopened in July.
News of the provincial government lowering its bar for border crossings came two days after Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor sat down with her counterpart in Guangdong on Saturday.
Before travelling to Beijing on Tuesday, Lam had declared that securing the reopening of borders with the mainland, as well as allowing quarantine-free, cross-border travel, were the “most important” issues on her agenda.
But Lam completed her tour of the Chinese capital, Guangzhou and Shenzhen on Friday admitting she had failed in that mission. China watchers subsequently raised questions over Beijing’s confidence in her ability to contain the health crisis.
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