China may partially open Hong Kong border by late January, reports say

The Hong Kong government is prioritising reducing restrictions for people to cross the border into China. PHOTO: REUTERS

HONG KONG – China may drop quarantine for Hong Kong residents travelling into the mainland in January 2023, according to local media reports, as the country speeds up its shift away from strict Covid-19 control.

There is “a good chance” of a “large-scale” pilot for quarantine-free travel before the Chinese Lunar New Year holidays, which start on Jan 22, the South China Morning Post (SCMP) reported on Saturday, citing two mainland sources.

Beijing-backed Ta Kung Pao also reported on Monday that quarantine-free travel from the city could resume around that time, citing a person it did not identify.

The border with China has been effectively closed since February 2020. Visitors from Hong Kong are limited by a daily quota, and they also have to undergo five days of hotel quarantine.

That has cut the city off from China’s vast hinterland as well as drastically reduced the number of visitors.

In 2019, there were more than 236 million passenger trips via land crossings across the border. 

A full reopening would come at a “later stage” and would depend on the Covid-19 situation in Guangdong and other neighbouring provinces, the SCMP reported, citing an unnamed Beijing-based official.

Mainland officials are checking immigration equipment at the border to make sure they still work, the SCMP said. 

Hong Kong’s leader John Lee said on Sunday that the government will conduct a full review of the city’s Covid-19 measures, including its LeaveHomeSafe app used to enter venues, and he expects to get a report “soon”.

Reducing restrictions on people crossing the border is a priority, he told reporters, without giving any timetable for resuming quarantine-free travel. 

China may start reopening the border for business and commercial purposes in December, Hong Kong lawmaker Ben Chan said in a Facebook post on Monday, citing sources. “Hurray for the gradual return to normalcy,” he wrote.

Expectations for Hong Kong to drop its remaining Covid-19 restrictions are growing after the central government did a U-turn on zero-Covid last week.

Last Friday, Hong Kong said it will shorten the isolation period for people who test positive for Covid-19 and their close contacts, and will require inbound travellers to take two fewer rapid tests.

In a further sign of easing, trucks from Hong Kong can now go directly to points in China to transport goods, and there will be no quota, the Transport and Logistics Bureau said in a statement on Sunday.

Previously, drivers could go to only designated checkpoints.

The Hospital Authority also relaxed its Covid-19 isolation and screening rules for patients from last Friday, the SCMP reported, citing an internal circular.

The city may take a cautious approach, given a rise in local infections. Hong Kong reported almost 15,000 cases last Friday, and 24 deaths.

Health Secretary Lo Chung-mau said Hong Kong will still retain its LeaveHomeSafe app, which people have to use to enter places such as restaurants and bars. 

“We may adjust the function of the LeaveHomeSafe app, but I think it is a very good app which has helped Hong Kong in the fight against the pandemic. Perhaps in the future, we may still rely on it to fight against other emerging infectious diseases,” Dr Lo told reporters on Sunday.

Dr Lo did not provide further details on how the app may evolve, saying it played an important role in contact tracing. The minister also said the government will ensure supply of paracetamol. BLOOMBERG

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