A Hong Kong infectious disease expert has said it is time for Hong Kong to decide whether it will relax or further restrict travel, as the city’s leader said the government must do whatever it takes to resume quarantine-free travel with the mainland.

Entering a Covid-19 travel bubble with the mainland would imply that strict international quarantine rules will remain in place, possibly for months to come.

A man arrives in Hong Kong via the Shenzhen Bay Port. File photo: GovHK.

However, resuming travel with the mainland is a “top priority” for the government, Chief Executive Carrie Lam said during a routine press briefing on Tuesday.

“It is more important for Hongkongers to be able to travel to the mainland, whether its for the economy or for their livelihoods… Of course international travel and international business are important for us, but comparing the two, the mainland is more important,” Lam said.

“As long as we can resume border crossing without quarantine, we will do our best to satisfy whatever the central government asks us to do,” she added.

Government Covid-19 advisor David Hui said on Sunday that mainland health authorities expressed concern over the city’s quarantine exemption policy during a recent meeting led by Chief Secretary John Lee to discuss possible travel arrangements.

Whatever it takes

The mainland officials suggested that Hong Kong should increase virus testing for medics and airport staff, increase restrictions on aircrew and diplomats, further boost the vaccination rate, and implement a travel health code, Hui said.

Hong Kong families leave the city. File Photo: Candice Chau/HKFP.

The government is currently studying the feasibility of setting up a health code system for travellers to the mainland, Hui said. It would integrate virus test results, vaccination records, and three weeks of movement records prior to entering China’s borders.

Ben Cowling, a University of Hong Kong infectious disease and epidemiology expert, told HKFP that – following reports in August claiming that Beijing will not consider Hong Kong travel bubble plans until after the winter Olympics next February – it would be best for the local government to decide its course of action for border-crossing policies now. Otherwise, the city will have to wait for months to align itself with the mainland.

With a higher vaccination rate and an effective antiviral drug available on the market, “I think there’s relatively little reason to wait to relax the measures other than because of the potential for a bubble with the mainland,” Cowling said.

File Photo: Rachel Wong/HKFP.

It would not be fair for the government to hold off from making plans in the longer term in order to wait for a potential travel bubble with the mainland, he said. “In the coming months when the rest of Southeast Asia starts to reopen and the economy starts to improve, maybe we will have different opinions about the best way forward.”

Hong Kong has recorded a total of 12,238 Covid-19 cases and 213 deaths since the start of the pandemic.

Selina Cheng

Selina Cheng is a Hong Kong journalist who previously worked with HK01, Quartz and AFP Beijing. She also covered the Umbrella Movement for AP and reported for a newspaper in France. Selina has studied investigative reporting at the Columbia Journalism School.