Coronavirus: HK to axe most quarantine exemptions in bid to satisfy Beijing concerns over border reopening

27-Oct-2021 Intellasia | South China Morning Post | 5:02 AM Print This Post

Hong Kong will end quarantine exemption privileges for most people in categories once identified as crucial for maintaining the city’s daily operations, Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor has revealed, as part of stepped-up efforts to convince Beijing to reopen the border with mainland China.

Fuller details would come in the afternoon, Lam said on Tuesday, calling the step a response to a joint meeting between Hong Kong and mainland Chinese health experts aimed at determining what steps were needed to assuage concerns about the city’s coronavirus situation.

Hong Kong has one of the strictest quarantine policies in the world, but its chief secretary, the city’s No 2 official, has the power to exempt those deemed necessary for governmental, business and health operations.

The latest move would get rid of special arrangements for most categories, which range from diplomats to company directors to scientific researchers, leaving only those deemed absolutely essential, such as truck drivers, Lam said.

“Most of the so-called group exemptions, meaning those who are able to come in from overseas and mainland China starting from the start of this year, will be cancelled,” the chief executive said at her weekly press briefing. “These are all measures taken to make the central government more confident in allowing us to resume borders.”

The revelation came as health authorities on Tuesday confirmed three coronavirus infections all imported involving travellers from Pakistan and Singapore. The cases took the city’s tally to 12,330 cases, with 213 related deaths.

Lam also appealed for understanding from the city’s foreign businesses many of which had publicly called for a loosening of quarantine restrictions saying they also stood to benefit from being able to enter mainland China.

However, she also cautioned that any border reopening would come in step-by-step fashion and begin with small quotas.

Exemptions granted by the chief secretary’s office have stirred controversy in the past, notably in the case of Australian actress Nicole Kidman whose TV series was defended as an economic necessity and an instance in which coronavirus cases emerged in the household of a Saudi Arabian diplomat whose family had been allowed to self-isolate.

Officials were also accused of applying the rules unfairly when they announced plans in May to exempt four top executives each month from financial firms and listed companies.

As part of its push for the reopening of the border, Hong Kong’s health experts met their mainland counterparts at a September 26 meeting convened by the local and central governments.

The meeting resulted in a list of suggestions from the mainland side aimed at bringing Hong Kong’s anti-epidemic measures more in line with those of Beijing.

Lam on Tuesday said the cancellation of exemptions was one of the steps outlined in the report that emerged from the sit-down.

She added that a recent move to require use of its contact-tracing “Leave Home Safe” app for entry to government buildings was also part of the plan to step up the city’s ability to track down closed contacts.

A time frame, however, has remained frustratingly elusive.

“My goal is as soon as possible,” Lam told reporters. “But even if we could resume border-crossing, it would be in order, with fewer people [travelling to begin with] and more later on.”

She also appealed for understanding on the part of foreign businesses on Tuesday, just a day after a survey conducted by the Asia Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association found almost half of its members, including banks and asset managers, were considering moving staff out of the city due to uncertainties surrounding its travel restrictions.

“Controlling the import of possible cases is a very important part of our [anti-pandemic] strategies,” Lam said in addressing the issue.

“If Hong Kong were to loosen the border controls for people arriving from overseas or adopt what other countries have done [in living] with the Covid-19 virus, then the chances of resuming travel with the mainland will be reduced.”

She also urged the business community to appreciate the fact they had based themselves in Hong Kong largely due to its proximity to the mainland.

“The context is that Hong Kong’s primary advantage lies in being the gateway to mainland China. If businesses established in Hong Kong cannot go to the mainland, I think it would significantly reduce the appeal of Hong Kong as an international business hub and international financial centre,” she said.

Currently, 36 groups that qualify for the chief secretary’s quarantine exemption involve travellers from mainland China, while 12 address overseas arrivals. Exempted travellers still need to test negative for Covid-19 before departure and undergo further screening once in the city.

Danny Lau Tat-pong, honorary chair of the Hong Kong Small and Medium Enterprises Association, said the business sector had no choice but to simply deal with the prolonged border closures until both sides were satisfied with their “zero-Covid” strategies.

“The past 20 months have been difficult for many companies, because businesspeople can’t go to mainland China to meet or negotiate with their business partners,” Lau said.

“There’s only so much phone calls and video conferencing can do. Businesses with factories across the border can’t just go there and handle any issues that come up.”

Lau said about half of his group’s 1,700 members had already gone through three to four rounds of quarantine over the past 20 months to engage in business meetings with stakeholders across the border.

The other half, mostly older business executives, preferred to stay put in Hong Kong, letting associates travel to the mainland to handle face-to-face meetings.

“On the surface, tightening restrictions on exempted groups won’t affect too many businesspeople, because most of them are not given the quarantine-free pass anyway,” he said.

Lau predicted that as long as the Hong Kong government maintained the status quo by granting exemptions to cross-border logistic workers, the impact on local supply chains would be minimal.


Category: Hong Kong

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