China, Hong Kong resume high-speed rail link after 3 years of Covid-19 curbs

Travellers queueing to purchase tickets inside the departure hall at West Kowloon Station, operated by MTR, in Hong Kong on Sunday. PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

HONG KONG - China resumed on Sunday high-speed rail services between Hong Kong and the mainland for the first time since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, as travel curbs were dismantled after Beijing scrapped quarantine for arrivals a week earlier.

The reopening comes amid a massive wave of infections nationwide and a day after the authorities said nearly 60,000 people with Covid-19 had died in hospital, following an abrupt U-turn on the government’s zero-Covid policy in December in the wake of historic protests.

Despite the infections, some passengers voiced excitement and relief about being able to more easily return to their home towns in time for the approaching Chinese New Year.

“The resumption of the high-speed railway has made it very convenient for us and has brought us closer to home,” said Mr Meng Lee, 33, who was among dozens going through border checks at Hong Kong’s West Kowloon station before boarding trains.

“For the past three years, due to the pandemic, it has not been easy to enter China in any way,” added Mr Meng, originally from the southern city of Guangzhou. “I have not been able to go home for a long time.”

A surge in travel ahead of the holiday celebrations set to begin on Jan 21, as hundreds of millions of people in cities return home to small towns and rural areas, has fuelled worries about more infections.

Saturday’s updated death toll was a huge increase over previous figures, following global criticism of China’s coronavirus data. The move was welcomed by the World Health Organisation, although the body called for more detailed data.

But the figure still falls short of the predictions of international health experts, who have said China could have more than a million Covid-19-related deaths this year.

Operations at West Kowloon station have been smooth, with a flow of about 1,400 passengers by 10am, said Mr Cheung Chi-keung, head of operator MTR Corp’s cross-boundary operations.

Tickets for nearly all trains were sold out on Sunday, a display at the station showed.

The reopening will initially be just for short journeys, MTR chairman Rex Auyeung told reporters at the station, but it was not immediately clear when long-haul journeys would resume. 

In another sign of reviving transport links, Saturday’s visitors to the nearby gambling hub of Macau exceeded 55,000, the highest daily arrivals since the pandemic began, the government said on its website. 

The mainland contributed 44,025, with just over 10,000 from Hong Kong, it said in a notice. 

The data, in line with a trend of rising daily numbers of visitors, promises a boost for the tourism-focused economy reeling from the previous zero-Covid measures. 

As many people in China scramble to secure Covid-19 drugs following reports of widespread hospital shortages, the Customs authorities in Hong Kong seized 380 boxes of suspected smuggled Covid-19 drugs last week, with an estimated value of HK$500,000 (S$84,300), the local government said. 

The items were found in two places: at the international airport in an air parcel arriving from India last Wednesday, and at the home of a 40-year-old man on Saturday. 

The man and a 34-year-old woman have been arrested as suspects, the government added in its statement on Sunday. 

There has been high demand for the Pfizer-made Covid-19 drug Paxlovid, in particular. REUTERS

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