Baby steps in reopening means a lot

Editorial | Mary Ma 25 Nov 2021

Will a breakthrough be struck today when Chief Secretary John Lee Ka-chiu meets his mainland counterpart to review cross-border quarantine-free travel?

The chance of this appears to be higher than at any time before in light of the upbeat tones we heard during the four days when a mainland delegation visited to learn first-hand how the pandemic measures work in the city.

The notice of today's meeting came as soon as the delegation wrapped up its tour.

Government Covid adviser David Hui Shu-cheong said he does not need to join Lee on the Shenzhen trip after being informed that the meeting would not discuss scientific matters but only technical issues concerning border reopening.

This is a positive sign, indicating both Beijing and Guangdong province are satisfied with the SAR's efforts to keep the infection rate at zero despite complaints that business at government markets, for example, have dived since customers were required to scan LeaveHomeSafe QR codes at every stop in the premises.

If a breakthrough is agreed in Shenzhen, it's a foregone conclusion that Macau would follow suit and fully reopen its border to some Hong Kong residents.

The developments may be small but are welcome because many Hongkongers rely on cross-border travel for work and family unions.

Would the border reopen on a limited scale on December 10 as speculated?

Why not? This would help to contribute some positive elements to the social atmosphere ahead of the Legislative Council election on December 19 amid fears that it may draw a record low turnout.

The resumption of quarantine-free travel is expected to begin with a daily quota of no more than 1,000 people with business or special needs. The quota will increase gradually, depending on how the actual situation unfolds.

However, there remains a nagging question: how stringent should the circuit breaker be?

Would the occurrence of a single Covid case on either side of the border be considered serious enough to activate the circuit breaker and throw every traveler into a lengthy quarantine isolation?

The technical arrangement is one of the issues that both Lee and his counterpart are expected to clarify during the meeting.

Setting the threshold that's too stringent would render the new border arrangement impractical, bearing in mind that dozens of Covid incidents have been reported occasionally across the mainland, forcing tens of thousands of people to be tested and isolated.

Should Hong Kong subject arrivals from the mainland to quarantine because of those reported incidents?

By the same token, it is inevitable for some cases to occur in the SAR over time. Should the report of one or a handful of infections be grave enough to warrant a suspension of an arrangement?

These questions have to be addressed carefully when Lee meets his mainland peers.

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December 2021

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