HONG KONG - Hong Kong is preparing for quarantine-free travel for up to 1,000 residents daily between the city and neighbouring Guangdong province in December, with an eye on global travel in the second quarter of next year, Hong Kong's top officials have revealed.
Speaking at a weekly briefing on Tuesday (Nov 9), Chief Executive Carrie Lam said the top priority is to gradually resume cross-border travel between Hong Kong and the mainland for business and other urgent needs.
Currently, officials are figuring out details, including the number of confirmed Covid-19 cases or the type of cases that would trigger a suspension of the scheme, but Mrs Lam said the threshold would not be "too harsh".
In an interview with the Hong Kong Economic Times published on Monday, she said the city will reopen its borders with Guangdong province and its residents will soon be able to travel to Shenzhen or Zhuhai without quarantine.
Travellers are required to have a mainland mobile phone number so that the mainland authorities can contact them if they, or a close contact, are identified as a confirmed case.
Local reports said the scheme will have a circuit-breaking system. This means quarantine-free travel could be suspended if there is just one unknown-source infection, although Hong Kong officials are negotiating for a threshold of at least two.
They added that a mainland delegation, likely led by top infectious disease expert Zhong Nanshan, may arrive in Hong Kong at the end of the month to inspect and advise on anti-pandemic controls.
Last Friday, Mrs Lam told business leaders that Hong Kong could be reopening borders with the mainland on a "large scale" by February next year.
Writer Sandra Han, 27, is counting on Mrs Lam's words, as the Zhejiang native is looking forward to spending Chinese New Year in her home town.
"Of course it's good to be able to clear customs finally, but it's also understandable that you need to be more cautious and gradually reopen to the mainland," said Ms Han.
Hong Kong, which adopts a zero-Covid approach like the mainland, has so far recorded under 12,400 confirmed cases and 213 deaths, with life in the city buzzing now.
But tough border controls and a quarantine of up to 21 days have drawn flak from some foreign and local business leaders, as well as the expatriate community, as countries around the world, including the United States, Germany, France and Singapore, open up.
On Monday, Executive Council member Lam Ching Choi was reported as saying that Hong Kong could open up to global travel in roughly six months, as the city needs to wrap up negotiations on reopening of borders with the mainland, iron out kinks in the scheme and boost the low vaccination rate among the elderly.
"We maybe need half a year or so to develop an adequate vaccination rate, especially among the older people," said Mr Lam, who is also part of the government's working group on vaccinations. "Hopefully by then, we would have opened up the border with China and we might have conditions favourable to opening up the border to other places."
So far, about 69 per cent of the city's 7.4 million population have had their first dose of the Covid-19 vaccine, while 66 per cent have had two shots.
Inoculation rates for those aged 70 and above remain low, with only 44 per cent of those aged 70 to 79 and 17 per cent of those 80 and above receiving one dose.
Dr Leung Chi Chiu of the Hong Kong Medical Association said the risks of reopening to Guangdong are low as there is no current outbreak in the province.
Asked about the flare-ups in the mainland, the respiratory medicine doctor said that although there is an ongoing outbreak involving 20 provinces, likely due to loopholes in border control and heavy cross-province tourist flow in autumn, the extent of community penetration remains limited in most cities.
"There is a good chance of clearing the local transmission in the mainland in the coming few weeks," said Dr Leung, who added that larger-scale reopening will mean that contact tracing on the part of the Hong Kong authorities must be enhanced.
It would ensure timely suspension of quarantine-free travel for individuals who have visited medium- or high-risk areas, as well as those who have been in the same place as a confirmed case, he told The Straits Times.