Starting slow train to opening border

Editorial | Mary Ma 14 Jul 2021

The "positive" note sounded by Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor on the probable resumption of quarantine-free cross-border travel with the mainland is the strongest indication to date that a breakthrough is imminent - and could be even sooner than anyone had predicted.

This is certainly good news to Hong Kong - although the opening up will most likely be capped at a certain number and limited to certain people in the beginning.

That is fine as the most difficult part is to set the train in motion.

Once it starts moving, it will be easier to accelerate the train, allowing the Lam administration to negotiate further easing and allowing more people from wider walks of life to cross the border quarantine free.

Understandably, it is also a foregone conclusion that, once there is an agreement, anyone crossing the border will have to be fully vaccinated.

Such an agreement with the mainland will be critical to Hong Kong - much more important than a similar agreement with Macau.

While Macau stands to benefit more from an agreement with Hong Kong, the latter will benefit economically from striking an agreement with the mainland as the city needs mainlanders to come and spend in support of local economic activities.

In parallel to finalizing the talks, vaccination has to be stepped up for the border to open on firmer ground.

As of this week, the number of Covid jabs administered increased to 4.46 million doses, covering 35 percent of the population with at least one dose and 24.4 percent with two.

That is a clear uptick from the past. Clearly, the public - including many who had hesitated in the beginning - are starting to realize there is no better alternative to vaccination in a global pandemic.

People know that, if they don't get jabbed, they will very likely be excluded from many normal activities, not only in the SAR but also places to which they are fond of traveling. France, for example, has hinted it may make vaccination mandatory for all French nationals.

As soon as the local vaccination rate increases to a certain level, the government will need to replace its zero-infection policy target with one that is practical and in line with the international norm.

Travel bubbles between places pledging zero cases are surely not the way forward.

Unless Hong Kong is content with living in isolation only with other zero-case places, it must prepare itself for opening up to the world.

Many countries have stopped insisting on eliminating Covid. Instead, they are telling their citizens to learn to live with it for good after realizing it is impossible to rid the planet of the virus.

It is not the right time to open Hong Kong's border to allow vaccinated people from other countries quarantine-free entry as only a third of Hongkongers have been vaccinated.

But when the percentage increases high enough to strengthen local protection, the government must revise the policy.

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