Hong Kong leader John Lee on Wednesday cancelled a trip to the Chinese mainland to discuss reopening travel as the coronavirus situation worsened on both sides of the border.

Lee was scheduled to visit neighbouring tech hub Shenzhen and provincial capital Guangzhou — his first official visit since taking office in July — where he was expected to discuss plans for reopening the border between Hong Kong and mainland China.

Chief Executive John Lee meeting the press on July 12, 2022. Photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

On Wednesday, Lee told reporters he would instead meet top city and provincial officials online due to the coronavirus situation, calling it the “most convenient” option.

“We will discuss the cross-border arrangement for residents in Hong Kong and mainland China and I hope that, after thorough discussion, a consensus can be reached,” he said.

The cancelled trip illustrates how hard it is for Hong Kong to balance the competing demands of reopening to the rest of the world while simultaneously reestablishing travel with closed-off China.

Hong Kong adheres to a looser version of China’s zero-Covid policy, under which infections are quashed with stringent border controls, lockdowns and social-distancing measures.

The restrictions have hammered the city’s economy and deepened a brain drain as rivals like Singapore embrace living alongside the coronavirus. 

Lee has promised to reopen travel with both the mainland and internationally, but with limited success so far. 

Earlier this month, his administration reduced compulsory quarantine for international arrivals from seven days to three. 

Businesses have urged him to scrap the requirement entirely, and no timetable has yet been given for when Hong Kong might truly reopen.

Meanwhile, local residents and businesses are desperate for the mainland border to reopen fully.

Hundreds of thousands of Hong Kongers need to travel regularly to the mainland for study, business and family reasons, according to Lee and his top officials.

Hong Kong reported more than 8,800 infections and 13 deaths on Tuesday, with authorities warning that social-distancing measures may be tightened if cases continued to rise.

Shenzhen on Tuesday ramped up its coronavirus curbs after officials detected the more transmissible Omicron subvariant BF.15 for the first time amid 35 new cases.

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