Macau border talks a good first step

Editorial | Mary Ma 22 Jun 2021

It was expected when Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor acted to make life easier at home and international travel a bit more convenient with shorter quarantine stay for residents who are either fully vaccinated or have had their first dose.

Hopefully, this is only a stage of an irreversible course of emergence from lockdowns. A higher vaccination rate will make this course to relative normalcy firmer.

Yesterday, Lam announced her administration has resumed negotiations with its Macau counterpart with a view to normalizing border arrangements with the other SAR on the opposite side of the Pearl River estuary.

This is somehow ironic. Although Macau is near, travel to it has never been so difficult.

It is necessary to restart the talks with Macau, which is being made possible after Hong Kong reported no local Covid infection cases for the 14th day in a row.

Even though the negotiations have just begun, Lam was quick to make clear that certain conditions have to be met, including vaccination and Covid tests before departure and return.

But a successful conclusion of the discussions with Macau would carry a meaning more symbolically significant than practical.

For instance, Hong Kong's border with the mainland is still far from normal - not as open as that between Macau and the mainland.

If Lam's Macau counterpart, Ho Iat-seng, agrees to reopen his side's border to give Hongkongers greater convenience to travel through, this would place Hong Kong in a stronger position to convince Guangdong province to treat it as equally as Macau.

Having said that, it is true that the developing pandemic situation in some cities in the province could be a cause for concern - especially after Covid alert is being stepped up in local communities including Shenzhen and Dongguan.

The sporadic outbreaks in Guangdong are temporary and will not stand in the way of permanent normalcy.

Lam said that, if local epidemic outbreaks had not happened in Guangdong, she would have already launched a pilot scheme to spare travelers from the mainland's strict quarantine arrangements.

She should press ahead with her priority to secure a greater opening of the border with the mainland if the negotiations with Macau conclude successfully.

General Chamber of Commerce chief executive George Leung Siu-kay could not be more correct when he cautioned that Hong Kong's economy will continue to suffer from the downturn unless the administration takes effective steps to reopen the SAR's borders soon.

As the government works to ease inbound restrictions, the mainland must be given high priority.

In light of Lam's speech, it is clear she is more determined than before to tie further easing of social distancing to vaccinations.

On one hand, she will give greater freedom to residents who are vaccinated. On the other, she will continue to make life inconvenient for those who are not vaccinated.

Will Lam double down to be even tougher if growth in the vaccination rate remains slow? It is probable.

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