Hong Kong has met ‘basic requirements’ for reopening border with mainland China but more remains to be done

·4-min read

Hong Kong has met the basic requirements to reopen the border with mainland China but must tighten Covid-19 control efforts in critical areas such as launching a new health code app before quarantine-free travel can resume, the city’s No 2 official has revealed.

However Chief Secretary John Lee Ka-chiu could not give an exact date for the launch of the long-awaited scheme or specify how many people would be allowed to cross each day, saying after talks with mainland officials in Shenzhen on Thursday that the details would be announced when a final decision was reached.

Chief Secretary John Lee led the Hong Kong delegation in Shenzhen. Photo: Dickson Lee
Chief Secretary John Lee led the Hong Kong delegation in Shenzhen. Photo: Dickson Lee

“The mainland has agreed that Hong Kong has basically fulfilled the conditions for border reopening,” Lee said. “Both sides agreed that we will submit reports regarding implementation details and will exchange further if necessary. We will work towards the common goal of resuming border travel as soon as possible in an orderly manner.”

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The Post previously reported that quarantine-free travel between Hong Kong and neighbouring Guangdong province could resume early next month, with a daily quota of not more than 1,000 people and priority given on the basis of business necessity or compassionate grounds.

“Reopening the border is a big event and we need to be fully prepared in every step,” Lee said.

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But the city will first need to improve pandemic control in five main areas, according to the secretary. Chief among them was the introduction of what he called the Hong Kong Health Code app that would allow the exchange of travellers’ names and Covid-19 status with mainland authorities.

Final testing was under way ahead of a launch expected in early December, said technology minister Alfred Sit Wing-hang, who also attended the meeting.

The new app will be linked with the government’s existing “Leave Home Safe” program, which monitors risk-exposure, and which itself has raised concerns over privacy among residents despite repeated assurances from authorities that it does not collect personal data or track movements in real time.

The other areas of concern flagged up at the talks hosted by Wang Liuquan, a deputy director of the State Council’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, were the arrangements at border checkpoints, manpower deployment, a system to minimise infection risk among high-risk groups, and a cooperation mechanism between both sides of the border.

A crucial aspect of the travel scheme will be a circuit-breaker mechanism to suspend the arrangement in the event of a coronavirus outbreak. It remains unclear how many cases will trigger a temporary shutdown; Macau for instance stops cross-border travel with the mainland when a single infection is found in the city.

“Our consensus is we need to establish a suspension mechanism that is operable and with clear definition,” Lee said.

A source who attended the meeting said the main details of the scheme, including the launch date and daily traveller quota, would be subject to final approval by the State Council’s top leaders.

“There are still minor different views on a few key things, including the suspension and resumption mechanisms, and they require final approval and decision from the higher authority,” the insider said.

A team of medical experts and officials from mainland China recently spent four days inspecting Hong Kong’s anti-pandemic measures. Photo: Sam Tsang
A team of medical experts and officials from mainland China recently spent four days inspecting Hong Kong’s anti-pandemic measures. Photo: Sam Tsang

Health minister Sophia Chan Siu-chee, who was part of the delegation, said the government was looking into strengthening management of people at high risk of exposure to Covid-19, including options to test fully vaccinated people in the group every two days.

Chan said that working groups dedicated to specific areas of the travel scheme, such as the health code system, would be formed.

The talks also included mainland officials from the central government’s liaison office, National Health Commission, customs, aviation, immigration and the governments of Guangdong province, Shenzhen and Zhuhai.

Last weekend, mainland officials including those from the health commission arrived in Hong Kong for a four-day visit. Sources close to the delegation said the team was largely satisfied with the city’s toughened efforts at keeping out the virus, but urged the local government to close loopholes at the airport, including the quarantine exemption given to cargo aircrew.

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Jeffrey Lam Kin-fung, an executive and legislative councillor and businessman, expressed hope that the border would reopen by the end of December as the city had remained in near lockdown for 21 months.

Lam, representing the city’s largest business group, the Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce, offered to help screen companies seeking to cross the border for business purposes.

“There are some outstanding questions needed to be answered such as whether a recovered Covid-19 patient becoming re-positive will trigger the suspension mechanism?” he said. “How can it be ensured the daily quota will not be abused?”

Additional reporting by Victor Ting and William Zheng

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