Coronavirus: experts back quarantine-free travel to Hong Kong for fully vaccinated passengers from low-risk countries

Health experts have backed calls for fully vaccinated travellers from low-risk countries to be allowed quarantine-free entry into Hong Kong subject to conditions, while the city’s tourism lawmaker says a proposal to partially lift Covid-19 restrictions for visitors from mainland China will fail to revive the sector.

Officials are looking at expanding the “Return2HK” scheme – which welcomes back Hongkongers from Guangdong province or Macau without them undergoing mandatory 14-day quarantine – to other parts of the country, as well as offering the exemption to non-residents crossing the mainland border.

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But the move received lukewarm response from tourism sector legislator Yiu Si-wing, who said it would do little to help the local industry because of the low numbers of visitors it would cater for.

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“There would be a limited quota and the need for quarantine upon returning to the mainland would not be attractive to tourists,” Yiu told a Friday radio programme.

“The exemptions, however, could benefit businesspeople and those who need to travel for emergency situations. This would give the hotel and catering industries a slight boost.”

Another lawmaker, Michael Tien Puk-sun, urged the government to allow fully vaccinated travellers from low-risk places, such as Australia, New Zealand and Singapore, to enter the city without undergoing quarantine, provided they had tested negative for Covid-19.

“This is the next step, but first we must allow Hongkongers in mainland China to come back,” Tien told another radio show.

Government pandemic adviser Professor David Hui Shu-cheong said city authorities could consider waiving hotel quarantine for fully inoculated travellers, so long as conditions such as mandatory testing were in place.

“It will need to work like a travel bubble, so vaccination documentation in addition to pre-departure and on-arrival Covid-19 tests are a must,” he said.

“There must be no variants of concern in the community. If there is a local outbreak, the arrangement must immediately stop.”

Respiratory medicine specialist Dr Leung Chi-chiu agreed that Covid-19 screening and a mechanism for halting the travel bubble were essential, adding those travelling under the special arrangements should be kept separate from other passengers to prevent cross-infection.

“Vaccination is just a support tool because it does not fully protect recipients from infection. If someone carrying a mutant strain is allowed into the city, it can lead to a huge outbreak,” he said. “We must not let a small step towards normality completely upend our efforts in keeping the virus under control.”

Launched last November, the “Return2HK” programme requires residents returning to Hong Kong to test negative for the coronavirus in the 72 hours before crossing the border.

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A total of 79,870 people arrived in Hong Kong under the scheme between its introduction and the end of February this year, according to official figures.

Some 528,000 and 538,000 Hong Kong residents stayed in Guangdong province for six months or more in 2018 and 2019, respectively, according to the Census and Statistics Department. The 2020 figure is not yet available.

As part of the programme, a daily quota of 3,000 people is imposed for the Shenzhen Bay Port crossing, while the Hong Kong Port section of the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge can admit 2,000.

Tien said it was “ridiculous” the programme only applied to some Hong Kong residents given the mainland was considered low-risk for Covid-19. But he suggested the government nonetheless require people to get vaccinated before their trip.

“There is no difference between a mainland resident and a Hong Kong resident getting vaccinated in China and then coming to the city. By the same token, a fully vaccinated Hongkonger travelling to the mainland is no different,” he said.

Starting on Friday, the compulsory quarantine period for arrivals into Hong Kong from Australia, New Zealand and Singapore has been reduced from 21 days to 14, followed by a further week of self-monitoring that includes a requirement to take a coronavirus test on the 19th day.

The Hong Kong government has recently relaunched efforts to strike quarantine-free travel bubble deals with countries such as Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, Thailand and Vietnam.

Officials also urged residents to get vaccinated if they hoped to take advantage of a travel bubble with Singapore once it was renegotiated. Hong Kong struck a deal with the city state last year, only for it to collapse amid a spike in Covid-19 cases.

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