Cost for clean health code too high

Editorial | Mary Ma 24 Jun 2020

It's been a while since Health Secretary Sophia Chan Siu-chee revealed a plan to form a travel bubble with Guangdong and Macau with the help of a mutually recognized health code.

Regrettably, the progress has been slower than expected.

Now that it's reported the scheme may be rolled out as early as this weekend, let's hope there will be no further delay to reflect poorly on the cooperation between the three places.

The scheme should be set in motion even if, as claimed in some reports, Macau is unable to participate in the beginning.

Macau's lack of participation will not have any material impact on Hong Kong.

More Hongkongers do business and work in Guangdong than in Macau and the mandatory 14-day quarantine requirement has made it unfeasible for those doing business and working in the province to return home.

I've heard how a factory executive from Hong Kong working in Dongguan has had to live in staff quarters near the factory without returning home for four months in order to avoid the 14-day quarantine requirement.

The separation has made life tough for his family and others in a similar situation.

A similar arrangement has already been in place between Macau and the mainland in which people testing negative within seven days of departure are allowed to cross the border.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor was right to point out there are challenges still to be resolved. While, to her mind, these may be technical, people are concerned about the exorbitant cost of getting a clean code in Hong Kong.

With fees as high as HK$3,000 per test, this seems extortionate.

It's an outrageous amount that must be lowered if the bubble is expected to expand later to cover more destinations such as Japan and Thailand, which are popular destinations for Hongkongers.

Even if the fees were halved, they would still be too high. Before the pandemic is finally over, it can well be imagined that coronavirus swab tests will have become a major revenue source for doctors, hospitals and laboratories.

In the long term, it should be possible to lower the cost as the bubble expands to benefit more travelers to create critical mass.

Before this happens, the health chief should come up with an alternative to increase competition in order to drive down the fees.

Perhaps the University of Hong Kong-Shenzhen Hospital could be encouraged to participate in the program to provide cost-friendly tests.

If private hospitals and laboratories in the SAR have found it impossible to lower the charges further - even though their mainland counterparts have been able to do so - is it possible to centralize the collection of swabs from applicants and pass them on to HKU's Shenzhen hospital to complete the tests to take advantage of the lower cost environment there?

There can be many ways to overcome challenges, just as long as officials are willing to keep an open mind.

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