Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee has secured China's support for a "reverse quarantine" programme to boost travel into the mainland, after 2 years of strict Covid curbs thwarted cross-border ties.
The city leader said at a news briefing on Thursday (Sep 1) that officials from neighbouring Guangdong province had, in a virtual meeting, backed his plan for travellers to first isolate in Hong Kong and then enter China quarantine-free.
"The main purpose is to first of all alleviate the burden of hotels in the mainland," he said. "The second goal of this proposal is to ensure that we will have a system to allow a regular flow of people from Hong Kong into Shenzhen."
Lee said a task force would now establish how those who quarantine in Hong Kong can enter the mainland without risking "contamination". He also suggested a community isolation facility in Lok Ma Chau - which is near the China border and has capacity for some 11,000 beds - could be suitable for the programme.
Currently, those crossing from Hong Kong into China must quarantine in a mainland hotel for 7 days followed by 3 days of home surveillance. Demand for such isolation rooms in the mainland is high, with limited capacity on offer.
Lee scrapped plans to travel to Guangdong this week for in-person talks, due to Covid-19 surges on both sides of the border. But he said conducting the meeting remotely had not made the exchange any less "fruitful".
Since taking office on Jul 1, Lee has faced pressure to balance reopening internationally and with the mainland. Hong Kong's economy is set to contract for the third time in 4 years, as isolating pandemic policies weigh on growth.
China announced it will lock down Chengdu's 21 million residents starting Thursday night, the biggest city shut down since Shanghai's bruising 2-month crisis earlier this year, demonstrating President Xi Jinping's continued commitment to his strict Covid Zero policy of eliminating the virus.
Lee has continued on the path of his predecessor in deviating from that zero-tolerance approach, pausing a painful flight ban mechanism and slashing hotel quarantine to three days from as high as 21. But Hong Kong is still one of the last cities in the world to impose isolation measures on vaccinated arrivals.
"It's always my intention, and the government's intention, to allow maximum connectivity with the world," Lee said, when asked about further reducing hotel quarantine.
However, he warned that with Hong Kong recording nearly 10,000 daily Covid infections, the public health care system was facing a "serious threat" and urged the community to work together to reduce the infection numbers.
"As the number of cases come down," he added, "there will be more room for me to do extra things." Bloomberg