Hong Kong could open up to global travel in roughly six months, after officials have successfully navigated the introduction of quarantine-free borders with mainland China and boosted the local vaccination rate, a government adviser said.
The Chinese territory needs to finish negotiating open borders with the mainland, while using the next few months to increase the flagging COVID-19 inoculation rate among the city’s elderly, Lam Ching-choi, a member of Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam’s advisory Executive Council, said in an interview on Monday.
“We maybe need half a year or so to develop an adequate vaccination rate, especially among the older people,” said Lam Ching-choi, who is also part of the government’s working group on vaccinations. “Hopefully by then, we have opened up the border with China and we might have conditions favorable to open up the border to other places.”
Despite procuring enough vaccines when they first became available, Hong Kong has struggled to inoculate its population of about 7.4 million people. Vaccine hesitancy, fueled by fears of side effects particularly among the elderly, has hampered their use. Only 17% of those age 80 and above in Hong Kong have gotten at least one shot, compared with 69% of the entire eligible population. And efforts by the government, including targeted pop-up vaccination sites at malls and public housing estates, have not yet boosted the take-up among older Hong Kongers.
As other countries continue opening up, Hong Kong and China remain the only places left in the world still pursuing a “COVID zero” strategy that seeks to eliminate local transmission of the virus through strict measures including long quarantines, rigorous contact tracing and targeted testing blitzes.
The approach, however, has been unable to totally stamp out the virus in China. It is currently struggling to suppress its fourth outbreak of the more-transmissible delta variant in the past five months.
In more cosmopolitan Hong Kong, the measures have led to rising frustration for international companies and residents who face mandatory hotel quarantines of as long as 21 days if they leave and return to the city. Foreign business chambers have warned the government the travel rules risk ruining Hong Kong’s reputation as a global finance hub, and have complained that there is no end game or exit strategy.
On Tuesday, Hong Kong’s leader reiterated that opening the border with China remained the priority over liberalizing travel with the rest of the world. She said Hong Kong officials will soon meet with mainland authorities again to discuss a formal reopening of the border. Lam said they haven’t yet figured out how many virus cases would trigger the reopening to be suspended, but added that they didn’t want the threshold to be “too harsh.”
“We are making good progress,” Lam, the city’s chief executive, said at a regular weekly briefing. “The central government and the Hong Kong SAR fully understand that the top priority in Hong Kong is to gradually resume cross border travel between Hong Kong and the mainland for business purposes and other urgent needs.”
However, if Hong Kong can’t open the border with mainland China, then it should begin looking at reestablishing ties with other countries, University of Hong Kong epidemiology professor Benjamin Cowling told Bloomberg TV on Monday. He also warned that any travel bubble with the mainland could prove fragile if the delta variant crosses over into Hong Kong. It is one of the densest cities in the world and the only one that hasn’t experienced a delta outbreak.
“Look at Singapore, Australia, New Zealand — they all had trouble stopping delta,” Cowling said. “We don’t have the same tools at our disposal as the mainland.”
Lam Ching-choi, the adviser, said that only once the city’s vaccination rate is higher and Hong Kong has again opened to the outside world can officials “talk about the endgame scenario,” which could include taking a more laissez-faire approach to the virus.
“Even if we want to live with the virus, as many other places are doing, we don’t have the vaccination rate to do that,” he said.
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