A decision by the European Union to ease travel restrictions for Hongkongers – but only on the condition the city reciprocates – is likely to run into a major roadblock in the form of the stubbornly low rate of local Covid-19 vaccinations, according to a health expert and an industry representative.
The city confirmed no new coronavirus cases on Thursday, but University of Hong Kong microbiologist Dr Ho Pak-leung said that the local vaccination rate still lagged behind countries in the EU. With Hong Kong still vulnerable to outbreaks, he said, it would be more difficult for the city to relax restrictions for incoming travellers.
“Those countries now have the right conditions for reopening travel, which is vaccination,” Ho said. “But Hong Kong’s immunisation rate is still far behind theirs and it could lead to the virus spreading in the community again.”
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With the economically critical summer travel season fast approaching, the EU said on Wednesday that it would agree to lift an entry ban on arrivals from Hong Kong, Macau and China if they implemented reciprocal arrangements.
The three destinations were the only ones among a total of 11 for which the EU required reciprocity. The others on the list were Australia, New Zealand, Rwanda, Singapore, South Korea, Thailand, Israel and Japan.
The potential relaxations are related to quarantine, testing requirements, the EU digital Covid-19 certificate or so-called vaccine passport, and the use of mobile coronavirus contact tracing and warning apps, pending the announcement of further details.
Tourism lawmaker Yiu Si-wing said that while whitelisting Hongkongers might help the European travel industry and the aviation sector, it was unlikely to be a huge draw for the city’s residents, as they would still have to pay for quarantine in a designated hotel upon their return under the current rules.
“If they spend a week in Europe and have to do 14 days of quarantine when they come back, most people are unlikely to want, or even be able, to spend 20 or so days in total for a holiday,” Yiu said on a radio show.
At present, Hong Kong considers some EU members – such as Belgium, France, Germany, the Netherlands and Italy – high-risk destinations, which means unvaccinated travellers from those places have to undergo 21 days of quarantine, while immunised ones must still do 14.
Yiu said he did not expect Hong Kong to offer to relax travel restrictions for EU travellers at the moment.
“The government right now is likely to be more focused on reopening its borders with mainland China,” he said. “It is unlikely we would risk triggering another outbreak just to have relaxed travel with another place and jeopardise the chances of travel to and from the mainland.”
Reached for comment on the EU decision, the Food and Health Bureau on Thursday said it was not changing its rules for incoming travellers at this time.
Hong Kong’s vaccination rate has picked up in recent days following a wave of incentives being offered to inoculated residents by the business community. But as of Wednesday, only 16.3 per cent of the city’s 7.5 million people had received both doses of a coronavirus vaccine.
The EU is the latest jurisdiction to welcome Hong Kong travellers, after Mauritius and the Thai island of Phuket made similar offers. Those arrangements, taking effect on July 15 and 2, respectively, both list vaccination as a prerequisite for quarantine-free entry.
The Mauritius and Phuket offers are so far unilateral, and Hong Kong – which has one of the most stringent quarantine requirements in the world – still considers the destinations to be medium and high risk, respectively.
The only quarantine-free travel deal Hong Kong has struck with an overseas destination is with Singapore. However, that long-awaited travel bubble was postponed indefinitely for a second time in May due to a fresh coronavirus outbreak in the Lion City.
As of Thursday, the city’s overall case tall stood at 11,881 cases, with 210 related deaths.
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